Biden-Xi Meeting Won’t Prevent Competition


Biden-Xi Meeting Won’t Prevent Competition

A meeting between Biden and Xi will not reset the trajectory of U.S.-China relations. Instead, fierce competition between the two countries lies ahead.


Since the Biden-Xi summit in Bali, Indonesia, last November, U.S.-China relations have further slipped into a trajectory of conflict due to tit-for-tat confrontations, such as the United States shooting down China’s spy balloon and increasing the intensity of sanctions in the semiconductor industry. In response, China has further intensified military exercises around Taiwan and strengthened de facto military relations with Russia, Iran, and North Korea to counter the United States’ competition strategy.

To defuse the tension, Joe Biden sent his cabinet members, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen, Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, and Climate Envoy John Kerry to Beijing one after another as part of his administration’s efforts to fulfill its commitment of a “competition without catastrophe” through “intense diplomacy.” 


Although the United States has made significant efforts to maintain open high-level military communication channels, China has repeatedly rejected the U.S. request to reopen these channels. U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated that China seems to think that U.S.-China relations would be more secure if they were “unbuckled” and had no “guardrails.”

However, after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Washington in late October, the United States and China agreed in principle to plan a meeting between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the APEC summit in San Francisco between November 11 and 17, although China has not officially announced the meeting. Given the current circumstances of China and the United States in the global context, the alternation of China’s decision, which seems to contradict its previous position, is logical.

Without a doubt, both sides need this meeting to serve their domestic politics. On the U.S. side, approximately 83 percent of American adults hold negative views of China, and taking a tougher foreign policy approach toward China has become a bipartisan consensus. In reality, the administration is hesitant to take risks in confronting China because the central goal of the Biden administration is to secure victory in the upcoming election year. To balance the government’s best interests with the will of the majority of the American people, Biden’s objective is to establish guardrails while competing with China to avoid a direct clash over China.

On China’s side, Xi’s China is facing serious challenges. China’s economy is in big trouble due to deflation, a housing market crisis, weak exports, high youth unemployment rates, population aging, and mounting local government debts. Domestic consumption is weakening, and foreign investors are losing confidence and withdrawing their investments from China. All of these factors have undermined the foundation of the government’s legitimacy.

China has experienced a political earthquake in Xi’s inner circle in recent months. Xi removed his two allies, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang and Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu. Xi also replaced two top generals, Zhang Shengmin and Wang Jiasheng, from the PLA Rocket Force, which plays a critical role in deterring and potentially attacking Taiwan and the U.S. military. These could have a detrimental impact on the quality of PLA equipment and the process of unifying Taiwan. Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, he has targeted more than sixty generals in the military.

History has shown that whenever the CCP encounters a crisis in power, it turns to the United States for help. In the 1970s, when China’s economy was on the verge of collapse and faced a potential Soviet nuclear attack, Mao Zedong began to work with the United States to resist Russia. After the Tiananmen Square Incident in 1989, when China faced international condemnation and isolation, Deng Xiaoping initiated a series of initiatives to restore China’s international standing and seek assistance from the United States and other Western nations.

Now, Xi Jinping is grappling with a significant economic, financial, and diplomatic crisis. The sudden death of former Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang has triggered widespread speculations, which has overshadowed Xi’s ability to govern domestically and abroad. Apparently, Xi’s China is not yet ready to open a third battlefield over the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea. Instead, he requires a grand spectacle of great-power diplomacy to regain some reputation in front of the domestic audience and, at the same time, alleviate domestic resentment.

Xi’s participation in APEC could be viewed as a way to divert attention from these domestic issues and project an image of strength and stability on the world stage. It could also be seen as an attempt to reassure foreign investors and trading partners that China remains a secure and appealing place to conduct business.

Furthermore, from the Chinese perspective, it might be a favorable moment for China to achieve more than it lost during the Biden-Xi meeting in the global political landscape. Ukraine has made only slow progress since it launched a counteroffensive against Russian forces occupying its territory in early June 2023. China has reasons to believe that the stalemate in the Ukraine-Russia war reflects that its policy of uniting with Russia and resisting the United States is effective, and the United States and Western societies are beginning to lose confidence in Ukraine’s victory.

The Israel-Hamas war is burning more American resources, resulting in the competition between the United States and China shifting in China’s favor. The war has also started to reshape public opinion, which affects the great power competition. Some countries have recalled their ambassadors from Israel. Some Western countries, including the United States, have been reluctant to offer military aid to Ukraine as attention has been diverted from Ukraine to the Middle East. While it tests whether the United States can fight two major wars at once, China sees this as an excellent opportunity to advance its national agenda of challenging U.S. global dominance and to win over the Arab and Muslim world by siding with Palestine.

These global political dynamics might empower Xi’s bargaining chip during the meeting. The two leaders could reach agreements on some issues, such as climate change, trade, and controlling fentanyl. Still, it’s almost impossible to solve some thorny issues, which are the cornerstone of U.S.-China relations. Among many disagreements, including stances on Ukraine, Hamas, human rights, technological competition, and regional security in the South China Sea, Taiwan is the toughest dilemma in the bilateral relationship. 

Today, China is ruled by Xi Jinping. Xi believes that contemporary times are witnessing unprecedented changes and confronting a myriad of challenges. Xi reiterated his belief when he met Putin in March of 2023, saying, “Right now there are changes—the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years—and we are the ones driving these changes together.” Xi and Putin have worked together to promote the current global changes, seeking to avenge the “century of humiliation” with “a century of change.” 

The mission of reunification of Taiwan is an integral part of this century of change, as the legitimacy of Xi’s third-term presidency heavily relies on his promise of reunification with Taiwan. If Xi could complete Chairman Mao’s unfinished task, he could surpass Mao’s legacy and cement his place in Chinese history.

Since the 20th National Congress of the CCP, Xi has repeatedly called on the PLA to be ready to fight and win wars on the global stage. Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission of the CCP, Zhang Youxia, made a strong statement on the Taiwan issue at the Xiangshan Forum on October 30, saying that Taiwan was the “core of China’s core interests.” The People’s Liberation Army will “show no mercy” against any moves for Taiwan’s independence. However, neither side can afford to lose the Taiwan issue.

Therefore, the meeting can be expected to be a candid dialogue on various issues of mutual interest and concern, but it is naive to have high expectations for this meeting. This meeting is more rhetorical and symbolic than of practical significance. If Biden and Xi meet at APEC, they won’t reset the trajectory of U.S.-China relations but only hit a temporary pause to prevent conflict escalation at this inopportune time. Fierce competition between the two nations over the Taiwan issue and others lies ahead.

Dr. Jinghao Zhou is an associate professor of Asian studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. His research focuses on Chinese ideology, politics, religion, and U.S.-China relations. He has published dozens of journal and news articles and six books. His latest book is Great Power Competition as the New Normal of China-U.S. Relations (2023).

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