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Biden-Xi Meeting: The Turning Point of U.S-China Relations?

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Contrary to the concerns that many had about the likelihood of another tense confrontations between the U.S. and China during the G20 summit, the first in-person meeting between the leaders of the two most powerful countries—Joe Biden of the U.S. and Xi Jinping of China—delivered a quite hopeful outcome that may help let off the steam of the tensions between the two countries. Besides their intentions to increase regular high-level engagement between the two countries, collaborations in a number of areas where there is not direct confrontation such as climate change and global food security are to be expected. However, could this meeting become the turning point of U.S.-China relations? In the near term, yes, but in the longer term, probably not.

Possible Agreements on Ukraine Crisis

The three-hour conversation between Biden and Xi covered a wide variety of topics during the summit, one highlight of which was their joint reaffirmation against the use of nuclear weapons. From China’s perspective, that was nothing short of a pointed criticism at saber-rattling Putin who threatened to use tactical nuclear weapons given the protracted stalemate that Russian troops has been mired in over the past eight months.

China’s attitude should not be interpreted as a surprise since evidence has shown that it has subtly moved away from its early Russia-leaning neutrality to a more aloof position: first, Beijing called for respect to sovereign and territorial integrity prior to referendums in Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine in September; second, on eve of G20, Chinese officials voiced their discontent with Russia by unveiling how Xi Jinping was “caught off-guard” by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It seems to be only a matter of time when China further distances itself from Russia in a bolder way.

Continued Disagreements over Economy

In the fields of economy, cooperations in the short run may seem bleak. President Biden was blunt about his concerns about China’s non-market economic practices that “harm American workers and families”. This remark came just weeks after Washington’s export control on semiconductors, which was an overt policy of containment of China.

Beijing condemned such moves by asserting that “starting a trade war or a technology war, building walls and barriers, and pushing for decoupling and severing supply chains run counter to the principles of market economy and undermine international trade rules.” As economic recovery has become the top priority for both leaders in terms of their domestic policy agenda, making concessions, if interpreted as slowing the recovery process, does not seem to be a viable option for them. However, considering the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s plan to visit China early next year, it is possible that more dialogues regarding the restoration of the U.S.-China trade relationship will be opened, at least in areas where direct confrontations have not taken the lead.

Unclear Future about Taiwan Strait

At first glance, Biden’s reassertion of the continuation of “One China” policy upheld by the U.S. government may have sent China a positive signal. However, he also raised U.S. objections to China’s “coercive and increasingly aggressive actions toward Taiwan, which undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and in the broader region, and jeopardize global prosperity.” In addition, even though Democrats achieved more than expected during the midterm elections, the Congress is now controlled by Republicans for the next two years. It does not take a genius to predict that the Republican-controlled Congress is going to to put more pressure on the Biden administration over Taiwan issues, despite the already hawkish pivot on China among Democrats. Biden himself, after having a taste of positive effects of playing the “Taiwan Card” on elections, may also seriously consider Taiwan as part of his long-term strategy if he ever plans on securing a second term.

As for China, the temptation to “reunify” the self-ruled island has never ceased. One week before the G20 summit, Xi Jinping pointed out that China was in an “unstable and uncertain” security situation and claimed that the Chinese arm must “comprehensively strengthen military training in preparation for war”. This is clearly a message intended to send to the U.S. and Taiwan, especially after Xi’s veiled condemnation of America’s increasingly support for Taiwan during the 20th Chinese party congress. So, would Biden’s restatement of “One China” policy cool down Xi’s Taiwan ambition? The answer is no. As China is taking steps to ease its zero-Covid policy, more socio-economic problems will ensue. Xi still needs a diversionary tactic to counter the upcoming domestic issues, and what’s more, an impetus to consolidate the legitimacy of his controversial third term.

The Turning Point of U.S-China Relations?

One misperception that China should not have but may have already had is that the U.S. cooperative initiative during the G20 summit was a sign of America becoming ungovernable. It is true that the midterm elections this year were unpleasant and chaotic, and the presidential election in 2024 may become even worse, but it does not mean the U.S. is structurally or strategically weakened. American foreign and security establishment will not permit any substantive downward shift in the U.S. power on the global stage under any circumstances.

America’s ability to ally western democratic countries in the wake of Ukraine crisis and to hold this coalition together so far proves that the United States still functions as the pivot of the global politics. For U.S.-China relations, a relatively peaceful period may come and stay for a while sometime in the next two years. But as long as China holds its determination to challenge the existing international liberal order, the long-term systematic contest between the two countries will continue.