Can a Summit Ease U.S.-China Tensions?
from Asia Program

Can a Summit Ease U.S.-China Tensions?

U.S. President Joe Biden shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, in 2022.
U.S. President Joe Biden shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, in 2022. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

On the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, a rare in-person meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping will provide an opportunity to put a range of issues on a firmer footing, including military and trade relations. But don’t expect any breakthroughs.

November 8, 2023 10:41 am (EST)

U.S. President Joe Biden shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, in 2022.
U.S. President Joe Biden shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, in 2022. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

Officials in the Joe Biden administration have visited China four times over the past few months, but nothing concrete seems to have come of their efforts. Can next week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit really make a difference?

This meeting matters because Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping have only met once since Biden became president—on November 14, 2022, for a three-hour talk in Bali, Indonesia, during a summit of the Group of Twenty (G20). That meeting was extraordinarily important because ties had cratered at the time and it allowed the leaders to discuss each country’s red lines. Immediately after the G20 summit, China resumed talks with the United States on climate issues. They also appear to have restarted military-to-military talks to avoid their forces from clashing.

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With the APEC summit, here are four areas to watch:  

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China

East Asia

G20 (Group of Twenty)

Taiwan

Xi Jinping

Taiwan. The most important issue at the summit is bound to be Taiwan. China considers the island part of its territory and opposes Taiwanese independence. Xi will want Biden to reiterate the United States’ position that it does not support Taiwanese independence. He may also hope Biden will say that Washington has no preferred candidate in Taiwan’s upcoming national elections—Beijing’s goal being a victory for the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party, which has a softer position toward China.

Fentanyl. The U.S. side will probably want China to commit to stemming the flow of chemicals used to make fentanyl, a dangerous drug that has become a leading cause of death among young Americans. Such a commitment would allow Biden to show that his foreign policy is aimed at helping ordinary people and not just elites.

Israel-Hamas war. Less likely is a statement on the Middle East, where China has positioned itself as a leader of the Global South, i.e., lower-income polities such as the Palestinian territories, and against the U.S.-led world order and U.S. allies, including Israel. China will not want to take a strong stand in support of either side in the war, however, so as not to anger trading allies, so the topic is likely to be sidelined.

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Climate action. China and the United States could issue a statement on fighting climate change, which would be a major shift given that neither is a leader on climate action despite being the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters. The United States is politically divided over the issue, while China is pushing ahead with green energy yet also building new coal-fired power plants.

In short, don’t expect huge breakthroughs. Gone are the days when presidents and premiers met Chinese leaders and came back with a briefcase full of business deals or other “deliverables.” And that’s not a bad thing. Those meetings were often empty, and many of the deals didn’t pan out—letters of intent to invest often languished, and China sometimes promised market access without delivering. Even though it’s easy to reject “empty talk,” it’s important that top leaders keep the channels of communication open.

More on:

China

East Asia

G20 (Group of Twenty)

Taiwan

Xi Jinping

Isn’t that true for all countries?

No, it matters more in dealing with China. The reason is that Beijing makes it hard for U.S. officials to understand who is advising Xi or what the decision-making channels are. Last year, Xi was appointed to an unprecedented third term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, a position that essentially allows him to run China indefinitely. (Earlier this year, he got a third term as president, but this is an honorific title in the Chinese political system.) Now that he’s ended term limits and has this new third term, Xi is surrounded by people who owe their allegiance to him almost exclusively. Meanwhile, people of Xi’s age—he turned seventy earlier this year— have all retired. Also worrying is that China’s foreign and defense ministers both appear to have been sacked, and the heads of the military’s prestigious Rocket Force were also purged earlier this year, two rare examples of trouble at the top. The changes make it even harder to fathom who is running the show beyond Xi and his immediate circle of loyalists.

So there’s a real possibility that Xi is surrounded by yes-men, who might not want to tell him bad news. In this context, it matters that the president of the United States can talk to him directly to explain why American perceptions of China are so negative and what the direct risks this could bring.

It’s not clear, for example, if Xi is directly aware of risky maneuvers by the Chinese military in recent weeks—notably, the buzzing of a U.S. bomber flying in international airspace. Decisions about such exercises are probably made by commanders on the ground, but they are based on guidelines issued by Beijing. Letting Xi know directly that these events are dangerous and potentially catastrophic could be useful.

Are there domestic reasons for Xi to want to meet Biden?

Yes, because China is in the midst of a serious economic slowdown and suffering from high youth unemployment. Last year, these concerns spurred rare nationwide protests. Even though these protests were short lived and didn’t spread that widely, they showed popular unease over typical checkbook issues, such as income, inflation, and housing prices. There is also a widespread feeling at home and abroad that China is turning its back on the “reform and opening” policies of Xi’s predecessors and turning inward.

In this context, Xi can show that he is managing ties with the United States and has reopened China for business, which could help him allay domestic concerns that China is heading toward war.

And for Biden?

Biden faces reelection next year, and while foreign-policy issues rarely win or lose an election for an incumbent president, it’s important for him to prevent an election-year blowup, for example over Taiwan. Biden claims to be a foreign-policy expert, and while that’s been put to the test with the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Israel-Hamas war, he needs to at least make sure that a new fire doesn’t break out with China.

Have recent international crises made China less of a priority for U.S. foreign policy?

For years, U.S. leaders have been trying to shift their focus away from the Middle East and the “forever wars” of Afghanistan and Iraq, most famously with President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia. Presidents Donald Trump and Biden also focused on Asia, hoping that improved diplomatic ties between Arab countries and Israel were proof that Washington doesn’t need to pay so much attention to that part of the world. The Russian invasion of Ukraine last year and now the Israel-Hamas war have changed that, forcing decision-makers to refocus on Europe and the Middle East. In this context, Biden will hope for a smooth summit with Xi and that the two sides can put aside differences, at least until Election Day next year.

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