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Biden-Xi summit seeks to avoid 'clash of the titans' moment

Tensions are reaching a fever pitch, but there seems to be interest on both sides in ratcheting it down. The question is, can they?

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected to hold a virtual summit on Monday evening, their most high-profile meeting yet following phone calls in February and September. It comes at a moment of immense uncertainty and flux in the U.S.-China relationship, and its outcome has the potential to set the two sides on a course they will follow for the remainder of Biden’s presidency, for better or for worse.

Over recent months, tensions have reached a fever pitch on a number of issues, particularly Taiwan, China’s expanding nuclear arsenal, and the South China Sea. However, in contrast to the atmosphere of the first half of the year, this has been offset by a renewed urgency for greater dialogue and cooperation. Defense officials from both sides held talks for the first time in August, and followed this up with a second round in late September

Trade negotiations have also resumed, apparently in earnest, with U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai saying on Wednesday that she is getting “traction” with her Chinese counterparts despite their differences. Renewed engagement has also achieved some tangible, and for many observers surprising, wins: the two sides resolved a three-year diplomatic dispute involving Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou and two Canadian citizens detained in China, and also unveiled a joint declaration at the COP26 conference in Glasgow this week which promised enhanced near-term action on climate change.

The Biden-Xi summit on Monday offers an opportunity to consolidate and build upon these victories, while arresting the downward spiral in other areas. Although the White House has said the meeting is “not about seeking specific deliverables,” a range of substantive initiatives are reportedly on the table. These include agreements on easing visa restrictions and a framework to move the ball forward on trade, while Xi may reportedly extend a formal invitation to attend the Beijing Winter Olympics despite growing calls in Washington for a diplomatic boycott (creating a possible political dilemma for Biden).

The two may also announce a bilateral dialogue on nuclear weapons, which four Congressional Democrats called for last week following several revelations about shifts in China’s capabilities and arsenal. If the summit indeed bears fruit on these issues, as some Chinese observers expect, this would open the door for future progress on others left unaddressed. Among those are the reopening of the consulates in Houston and Chengdu that were closed in the final year of the Trump administration, the easing of restrictions on foreign journalists operating in both countries, or the institutionalization of more thorough military-to-military dialogue and crisis management mechanisms.

But the White House has been clear in framing the summit in broader terms, part of its efforts to “responsibly manage” the competition between the two sides and put in place “guardrails” to ensure it does not veer into conflict. Biden is likely to, and should, reiterate the message he delivered to the United Nations General Assembly in September that Washington does not seek a “new Cold War” with China. This has since been repeated by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on several occasions alongside a rejection of any ambitions to transform China’s political system, in apparent contrast with the Trump administration. This message has been received warmly by Beijing, and helps to create an atmosphere conducive to reducing tensions and worst-case-scenario thinking on both sides, while allowing frank discussions on the issues that will likely divide them for the foreseeable future. 

One area to pay attention to will be the use of and discussion surrounding the term “competition.” In a meeting between China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi and Sullivan in October, which laid the groundwork for Monday’s summit, Yang noted that “China attaches importance to the positive remarks made recently by” Biden about how the United States is “not seeking a ‘new Cold War,’” but also added that “China opposes defining China-U.S. relations as ‘competitive.’” This was a novel declaration at the time, and Xi Jinping’s reiteration of it at the summit would be a clear signal, as would the reprisal of any linkage between Beijing’s willingness to cooperate on things like climate change and Washington’s posture on sensitive issues such as Hong Kong and Xinjiang. The latter would be notable given the joint declaration on climate change announced this week – which also gives Biden ammunition to argue that cooperation can in fact coexist with competition, which need not be entirely negative-sum in nature.

The area most in need of frank and open discussion and “guardrails” is Taiwan. Tensions have risen rapidly over the last month and elevated it as the new defining issue in the relationship, following a record-number of incursions by Beijing’s warplanes into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone and growing concern, supported more by conjecture than hard fact, that China may make a move sometime this decade. Beijing believes Washington, Taipei, and others have been adding fuel to the fire, following the first-ever public confirmation by both U.S. and Taiwanese officials that American troops have been conducting training exercises on the island for some time, the sailing of a British warship through the Taiwan strait for the first time since 2008 amidst a number of other U.S.-led exercises in the region, a renewed diplomatic push by Taipei, and greater political activism by Europe and members of Congress.

The two leaders need to recognize how precarious and uncontrollable these dynamics are becoming for both sides — Beijing recently had to quell domestic rumors that an invasion was looming — and urgently reverse this downward spiral through some framework of mutual restraint. Not only could tensions result in a devastating conflict in which all sides lose, but they also threaten to curtail the real and necessary progress already made on other issues and the possibility of further gains down the road. 

While unlikely to ever see eye-to-eye with Xi, Biden has the opportunity to clear the air and address some of Beijing’s ever louder concerns, such as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent comments that Washington should “pursue a real one-China policy, instead of a fake one,” and “put it into action, instead of saying one thing and doing the opposite.” As but one example, Biden could state clearly and unequivocally that although he supports Taiwan’s “meaningful participation” in international organizations or the reinstatement of its “observer status” at the World Health Organization, he does not support its full membership in any institution requiring statehood.

Although unlikely to satisfy Beijing, such clarifications would help put a ceiling on a fluid domestic and international debate, while adding teeth and credibility to likely statements that Biden remains committed to Washington’s “one China” policy, does not support unilateral changes to the status quo or the use of force, and continues to steadfastly support any resolution reached peacefully, absent coercion, and with the consent of the Taiwanese people. For his part, Xi Jinping should also reaffirm Beijing’s commitment to a peaceful resolution as its first priority, and state directly that he is not planning to attack Taiwan or undertake any highly provocative actions, such as the seizure of the Kinmen islands. It takes two to tango, and likewise two to keep the peace, and these statements would go a long way in helping cool the temperature in Washington. 

The summit is unlikely to amount to a reset, but does offer the two sides the chance to reassess the relationship following months of rhetorical barbs and political jockeying. As Washington approaches the midterm elections next year, and Beijing nears its historic 20th Party Congress where Xi Jinping may cement his status as president for life, it also represents a possible pivot point, an opportunity to “seize the limited window for improving relations” and set it on a safer and more sustainable course for years to come.

Whether the two are able to step up to the plate, recognize the need for mutual restraint, compromise and reconciliation, and turn their calls for a more sober relationship into action will ultimately be up to them both.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (R) and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping (C) review honor guards during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing August 18, 2011. REUTERS/How Hwee Young/Pool.
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