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What to Expect from the Biden-Xi Summit?

12.11.2023
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According to D.Roy

There is a feeling of déjà vu surrounding this summit. A year ago, observers were hopeful that a meeting between Xi and Biden in Bali, Indonesia, would reverse a major downturn in U.S.-China relations. However, bilateral relations remained poor after the major brouhaha, and they soon deteriorated further after a US fighter jet shot down a Chinese balloon that the Chinese government claimed was a weather balloon flying over the United States.

The meeting in Bali resulted in a largely meaningless agreement between Xi and Biden on a few vague platitudes. According to Beijing’s interpretation, Biden made a “commitment” that the United States does not want a “new Cold War” or “conflict with China,” is not trying to undermine China’s political system, and is not targeting its alliances against China. and does not support Taiwan independence. In recent months, the Chinese government has called on the US to “implement the Bali Consensus.” Washington can easily agree to this, since the “commitments” correspond to the stated intentions of the United States.

However, after the Bali meeting, Chinese officials also elaborated on changes in U.S. policy that they say are needed to resolve the crisis in the bilateral relationship. They specifically emphasize three areas in which Washington must “correct its mistakes”:

First, Washington must “renounce attempts to contain China on trade and technology” through “unwarranted sanctions” and “persistent refusal to cooperate with China in advanced technologies and key supply chains.”

Secondly, Beijing demands that America stop “inflating the theory of the Chinese threat” and “building an anti-Beijing alliance.”

Third, the PRC government claims that Washington is “playing the Taiwan card to contain China,” claiming to follow the one-China policy while in practice promoting Taiwanese independence through arms sales and gestures of political support for the Taipei government.

Given the bipartisan consensus among U.S. policy elites that China is aggressively seeking geopolitical dominance in the Asia-Pacific region and global leadership in critical advanced technologies, there is no chance the Biden administration will ease economic risk mitigation measures or pause its security policies to counter China. Likewise, hearing further arguments from the PRC that Beijing rightfully owns Taiwan and the South China Sea will not persuade the Biden team to change US policy of insisting on a peaceful settlement of Taiwan's status and challenging China's illegal claims in the South China Sea.

For its part, Washington's goal at the San Francisco meeting is to make progress on "responsibly managing competition" and "stabilizing relations." At a minimum, this will mean ensuring Chinese government cooperation, confidence-building, and de-escalation procedures, including the involvement of Chinese military and quasi-military units to prevent aggressive and dangerous actions in international waters and airspace. In a welcome development, Xi and Biden will reportedly announce a resumption of the US-China bilateral military dialogue that Beijing cut off following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's 2022 visit to Taiwan.

More broadly, Beijing views the US interest in establishing “fences” in bilateral relations as a ploy. According to China, Washington's goal is for China to remain passive while the US government acts with impunity to undermine China's sovereignty claims.

To sum up, significant improvement in bilateral relations will require one or both sides to abandon their current policies. As both major US political parties prepare for the 2024 elections, no American politician, especially Biden, wants to look weak in the eyes of China.

What about Xi? He had a difficult year after the Bali summit. China's recent economic problems have had a negative impact on Xi Jinping's domestic political standing. In many countries, including those that control much of the world's wealth and productivity, unfavorable views of China reached record levels in 2023. It is possible that Xi is very interested in improving relations with Washington. But is it willing to ease its military pressure on Taiwan or stop persecuting rival claimant governments in the South China Sea?

It's more likely that Xi is willing to offer no more than a few superficial friendly overtures, such as welcoming more meetings between Chinese and U.S. officials or expressing interest in cooperating on global issues such as peace in the Middle East or climate change. This will help facilitate a summit with Biden that will bolster Xi's prestige at home. He may also hope that, at minimal actual cost, he will be able to ease some of the US pressure on China.

 

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