Biden-Xi: déjà vu in San Francisco - Expectations for the summit meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping on Nov. 15 in San Francisco are appropriately modest. The ceiling for success is very low, and it is possible the meeting will yield no significant benefit to the United States.
A Summit Not Worth Holding?
There is a sense of déjà vu surrounding this summit. A year ago, observers hoped a Xi-Biden meeting in Bali, Indonesia, would reverse the severe downturn in US-China relations.
After considerable hoopla, however, bilateral relations remained poor.
Indeed, relations soon grew even worse after a US jet fighter shot down a Chinese spy balloon—which the Chinese government falsely claimed was a weather balloon—that had overflown the United States.
The takeaway was that summit meetings are potentially useful, but do not necessarily by themselves transform relationships that are antagonistic for deeper structural reasons.
The Bali meeting produced a largely meaningless agreement between Xi and Biden on a few vague platitudes. According to Beijing’s interpretation, Biden made “commitments” that the USA doesn’t want a “new cold war” or a “conflict with China,” isn’t trying to subvert China’s political system, isn’t orienting its alliances against China, and doesn’t support Taiwan independence. In recent months the PRC government has called on the USA to “implement the Bali consensus.” Washington can easily agree to that, since the “commitments” are consistent with stated U.S. intentions.
China Demands Change from U.S.
Since the Bali meeting, however, Chinese officials have also specified changes in U.S. policy they say are necessary to resolve the crisis in bilateral relations. They emphasize three areas in particular where Washington must “correct its mistakes.”
First, Washington must “give up attempts to oppress and contain China in trade and technology” through “unreasonable sanctions” and “pushing decoupling with China in advanced technology and key supply chains.”
Second, Beijing demands that America stop “hyping the China threat theory” and “building an anti-Beijing alliance.”
Third, the PRC government alleges that Washington is “playing the Taiwan card to contain China” by claiming to follow a one-China policy while, in practice, promoting Taiwan independence through arms sales and gestures of political support for the Taipei government.
Given the bipartisan consensus among U.S. political elites that China is aggressively and ruthlessly pursuing geopolitical pre-eminence in the Asia-Pacific region and global leadership in crucial advanced technologies, there is no chance the Biden Administration will reduce its economic de-risking or pause its revitalization of U.S. security partnerships to counter China, either as a result of the Xi-Biden summit or follow-up meetings between other high-ranking Chinese and US officials.
Similarly, hearing further rounds of PRC arguments that Beijing rightfully owns Taiwan and the South China Sea will not persuade the Biden team to change the U.S. policies of insisting on a peaceful resolution of Taiwan’s status and of challenging unlawful Chinese claims in the South China Sea.
What Should the Goal Be for Biden?
For its part, Washington’s goal for the San Francisco meeting is to make progress toward “managing the competition responsibly” to “stabilize the relationship.” At minimum, this would mean gaining the PRC government’s cooperation in confidence-building measures and de-escalation procedures, including getting Chinese military and quasi-military units to avoid aggressive and dangerous actions in international waters and airspace. It is welcome that Xi and Biden will reportedly announce the resumption of US-China bilateral military dialogue, which Beijing cut off after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in 2022.
But before we get too excited, we should keep in mind that a longstanding Chinese policy is to employ aggressive and dangerous maneuvering around U.S. ships and aircraft as a gray-zone tactic, attempting to intimidate the US government into calling off surveillance and freedom of navigation operations in international skies and seas near China. When questioned, the Chinese government says the solution is for U.S. ships and aircraft to stay away.
More broadly, Beijing sees the U.S. interest in establishing “guardrails” in the bilateral relationship as a subterfuge. In the Chinese view, Washington’s objective is for China to remain passive while the U.S. government acts with impunity to undermine PRC sovereignty claims.
In sum, a substantive improvement in bilateral relations would require one or both sides to abandon dearly-held policies.
With both major U.S. political parties positioning themselves for the 2024 elections, no US politician—especially Biden—wants to look weak on China.
What Does Xi Want?
What about Xi? He has had a rough year since the Bali summit. China’s recent economic problems have had a negative impact on Xi’s domestic political standing. In many countries, including those that control most of the world’s wealth and productivity, unfavorable views of China reached record highs in 2023. It’s possible that Xi is highly motivated to improve relations with Washington. But would he be willing to dial down his military pressure on Taiwan or call off the harassment of rival claimant governments in the South China Sea?
It is 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 professing an interest in cooperation on global issues like Middle East peace or climate change. This would help facilitate a summit with Biden that would bolster Xi’s prestige back home. He might also hope that at minimal actual cost he can somewhat slow the momentum in Washington or an even tougher posture toward China.
All these signs point toward the conclusion that the San Francisco meeting will be Bali redux, with a similar aftermath.
About the Author
Denny Roy has focused mostly on Asia Pacific security issues, particularly those involving China. Recently Roy has written on Chinese foreign policy, the North Korea nuclear weapons crisis, China-Japan relations, and China-Taiwan relations. His interests include not only traditional military-strategic matters and foreign policy, but also international relations theory and human rights politics. Before joining the East-West Center in 2007, Roy worked at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu for seven years, rising to the rank of Professor after starting as a Research Fellow. In 1998--2000 Roy was a faculty member in the National Security Affairs Department at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. There he taught courses on China, Asian history, and Southeast Asian politics. He also designed and taught an innovative course titled Human Rights and National Security in Asia.
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