What Is the Meaning Behind the U.S.-China Summit?

What Is the Meaning Behind the U.S.-China Summit?

High-level diplomatic visits can achieve much when they include meaningful sacrifices combined with a united domestic political environment.

Despite meeting at the APEC summit this week, Biden or Xi are not moving toward a detente. The pressures and incentives behind current tensions remain present and are, in some cases, strengthened by recent developments. This meeting instead appears to be a political exercise to signal to American and Chinese audiences rather than an indication of real progress toward fixing issues in U.S. policy toward China.

The Sino-American competition is rooted in ideological differences and shared ambition for economic and military dominance, especially in Asia. Today, competition manifests in bold displays of wealth and aggression like China’s Belt Road Initiative or America’s recent deployment of troops to Taiwan. In order to end the potential spiral, both sides would have to make historic concessions involving the alteration of fundamental policy and even the nature of key alliances, such as China’s close relationship with Russia. If any such change were on the way, there would be other indications, so it seems unlikely a U.S.-China summit means a sudden willingness on either side to consider important sacrifices to end the rivalry.

As it stands, both countries see each other as vulnerable. The Biden administration is facing a plethora of issues, from draining wars in Ukraine and Gaza to near economic stagflation. Meanwhile, Xi’s economic policies are driving away investors, and rumors of political turmoil find vindication in consistent government purges. These are just a few of each nation’s serious problems, but they are neither unprecedented nor at the point where they can only be resolved by first striking a truce.

Both leaders still have plenty of options that can mitigate their respective challenges while still being able to afford competition with each other. For example, the United States can focus on revitalizing trade, adopting skills-based immigration reform, protecting the financial sector, and simplifying federal regulations. China can simply take actions to promote foreign investment, tighten government spending, and tax revenue reforms. These are just a few in the litany of options both nations have to overcome their own hurdles. So rather than being driven to fold, both countries are more likely to keep trying to call each other’s bluffs.

There is speculation that Xi’s visit is meant to “keep communication channels open” for use in times of crisis, but this, too, is doubtful. The nature of these crisis communication channels is not as subject to political signaling as in other arenas. If China and the United States want to preserve or promote lines of communication, they can do so without big announcements and high-profile summits. This means if they draw attention to communication (as is the case with the upcoming meeting), it’s probably for different reasons.

The real reasons for the meeting are somewhat underwhelming. It’s more likely this meeting is meant to score political points at home, something both Biden and Xi need, considering America’s upcoming elections and China’s failing global image. The majority of Biden’s competitors vying for office are doing so on platforms openly hostile to China—especially from the Republican party. Rushing a meeting with Xi could be a way for Biden to try and influence polling by painting himself and the Democrat party as the best shot at diplomacy and peace. It might also be a ploy for donors, who are often insistent on preserving relations with China. Whatever the reason, any outcomes that cool tensions will likely be no more than short-lived secondary benefits.

Even if the summit is intended solely to initiate a detente, China has little reason to believe that the Biden team will remain in power past January 2025. The administration has hemorrhaged support from progressives on Gaza and alienated centrist voters by insisting that they should be more grateful for Biden’s broken economy. Rather, now would be the time for Xi to feign cooperativeness and use such meetings for political games while quietly working harder to subvert American influence.

High-level diplomatic visits can achieve much when they include meaningful sacrifices combined with a united domestic political environment. This means policies like ending the economic war on China, respecting the One China Policy, and passing the torch of containment to regional allies. It would also look like domestic policies promoting familial, entrepreneurial, and communal growth. But these and other necessary actions can only be done by ethical leaders supported by united constituents and societies of strong moral character. And if recent years of raucous political turmoil and domestic unrest have proven anything, the odds that such actions will be taken are low.

Garrett Ehinger is a China analyst with a bachelor’s in Biomedical Science with a minor in Mandarin Chinese from Brigham Young University in Idaho. He is currently a master’s student at the University of Utah studying public health. He has studied Chinese culture and language for over a decade.

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