After meeting on the sidelines of the APEC summit in San Franciso on November 15, Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping (separately) announced several agreements that reflect their shared interest in reducing U.S.-China tensions. They agreed to resume military-to-military exchanges at both senior and operational levels. They also agreed to improve cooperation on counternarcotics, primarily aimed at ending the flow of Chinese-origin fentanyl into the United States. In addition, Washington and Beijing will expand dialogue on addressing the potential risks of artificial intelligence, continue to hold working-level consultations on a wider range of bilateral issues, and seek to increase educational and cultural exchanges between the two countries. Biden and Xi also hailed the agreements announced earlier in the week on enhanced bilateral cooperation on climate issues.
This is an impressive list, especially given Washington’s deemphasis on “deliverables” and efforts to keep expectations low in the run-up to the meeting. But setting low expectations allows both sides to highlight the summit’s achievements, thus ensuring that it could be portrayed as a success—which was a predictable political requirement for both Biden and Xi. Accordingly, both Washington and Beijing can assert that some positive, corrective momentum has been injected into a relationship widely perceived as increasingly antagonistic and unstable.
This, however, was almost precisely the narrative after the last meeting between Biden and Xi a year ago in Bali, Indonesia, on the sidelines of the G-20 summit. The perceived momentum then was stalled within a few months by the spy balloon episode and other adversarial aspects of the relationship that kept fueling mistrust and misunderstanding and left fundamental issues unresolved. Unfortunately, the same appears likely to happen again, given the underlying issues that were not substantially addressed in San Francisco.
The comparison to the Bali meeting is particularly important because one of Beijing’s key public diplomacy themes in the run-up to San Francisco was the need to “return to Bali.” China’s official news service emphasized this in a series of commentaries, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said a week before the summit that “The two sides need to return to what was agreed between the two presidents in Bali and truly act on it.”
According to the official readouts of the San Francisco meeting, Biden and Xi reaffirmed their agreement a year earlier to work toward “developing principles” to manage the relationship, sustain high-level diplomacy, and host “working groups” for consultations on a range of bilateral issues. But there were mixed signals on another key element. Beijing’s readout of the Bali summit a year ago included this:
President Biden reaffirmed that…the United States respects China’s system and does not seek to change it. The United States does not seek a new Cold War, does not seek to revitalize alliances against China, does not support… ‘two Chinas’ or ‘one China, one Taiwan,’ and . . . has no intention to seek ‘de-coupling’ from China, to halt China’s economic development, or to contain China. . . . President Xi said that he takes very seriously President Biden’s ‘five-noes’ statement.
The Biden administration’s readout of the Bali summit, however, did not mention these assurances to Xi.
Beijing’s initial Chinese-language readout of the San Franciso meeting suggested that these U.S. assurances were not reiterated there, referring to them only as having been delivered by Biden “at the Bali meeting last year.” But the subsequent English-language version issued by Beijing indicated that Biden had, in fact, “reaffirmed the five commitments he made in Bali.” The reason for this discrepancy is unclear, but the official White House readout of the San Francisco meeting—like last year—does not mention these assurances. Whatever transpired privately at the meeting, Xi will have deemed it important to hear them again. Beijing probably interprets Washington’s reluctance to publicly acknowledge Biden’s “five noes” as resistance to—or at least ambivalence about—offering assurances on core Chinese issues.
Other elements of the official U.S. and Chinese readouts of the San Francisco summit also suggest substantial gaps in strategic perception and mutual understanding. According to the White House version, Biden emphasized first and foremost that “the United States and China are in competition” and that “the United States will always stand up for its interests, its values, and its allies and partners.” The readout then itemized the concerns Biden raised with Xi about Chinese behavior, including Beijing’s challenges to peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific—particularly in the South and East China Seas and the Taiwan Strait; its abuses of human rights in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong; its unfair trade practices; wrongful detention of U.S. citizens; and potential Chinese use of American technologies in ways that undermine U.S. national security.
This is Biden speaking primarily to his domestic political audience—especially his critics on Capitol Hill—demonstrating his readiness to be tough on China and avoid making any substantial or unilateral concessions to Beijing. This may also help explain the Biden administration’s non-advertisement of the “five noes” assurances to Xi. Instead, Biden emphasized the now-standard position that engagement with China primarily serves the relatively minimalist purpose of “maintaining open lines of communication” and “responsibly managing the competition to prevent it from veering into conflict”—although “cooperating on areas of shared interest” will also be pursued where possible. All of these messages from Biden were previewed in a White House press briefing shortly before the summit.
In contrast, Xi’s performance in San Francisco appeared to be directed primarily at the global audience, for whom he sought to demonstrate Beijing’s readiness to be reasonable and cooperative in dealing with Washington’s more confrontational approach. According to the Chinese readout, he reiterated Beijing’s longstanding objection to framing the U.S.-China relationship as primarily competitive, asserting that this would not solve the problems facing the two countries and the world. Xi said Washington and Beijing must “join hands to meet global challenges and promote global security and prosperity” rather than “cling to the zero-sum mentality” and thus “drive the world toward turmoil and division.” He reaffirmed Beijing’s standard mantra about “mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and win-win cooperation.” He also complained about U.S. export controls and sanctions that he said “contain China’s development” and “seriously hurt China’s legitimate interests.” In short, Xi tried to portray Beijing as the “good cop” seeking peaceful coexistence, calculating that this would resonate internationally, particularly among countries in the Global South with similar views of U.S. arrogance and unilateralism. But he repeated many of the same themes to a sympathetic American audience in a speech after he met with Biden.
The irony is that much of the commentary in advance of the summit suggested that Xi would be coming to San Francisco in a politically and diplomatically weak position because of Chinese economic problems that are presumably eroding his public and elite support at home and negative views of China abroad due to Beijing’s coercive and unscrupulous behavior. For these reasons, the premise was that Xi needed a “successful” summit more than Biden did and thus would be more focused on atmospherics and “optics” than on gaining substantive concessions from Washington.
On the contrary, Xi appears to have been sufficiently confident to assume the role of “good cop,” and to play it before both the international and American audiences in San Francisco (and for the benefit of his audience back home in China). Moreover, it would be a mistake to suggest that Xi was not seeking Biden’s attention on substantive issues during the summit: the “five noes” assurances are critically important to Beijing, as are Chinese complaints about U.S. policies toward Taiwan, export controls, and U.S. “containment” of China. At the same time, Xi probably adopted Biden’s low expectations for the meeting because Beijing recognized that Washington had set them low and would enforce that.
Biden himself didn’t “need” a successful summit more than Xi did (nor did Beijing think so). Still, he probably calculated that he needed the meeting to calm tensions and restore stability in the U.S.-China relationship, and demonstrate that he would not make any unilateral concessions to Beijing. In short, he sought to reaffirm the United States’ “position of strength” in the relationship—even though that is an increasingly tenuous assumption, given the crises Washington is grappling with in Gaza and Ukraine, global ambivalence about American clout and credibility (including among U.S. allies), and the American political dysfunction that is fueling that ambivalence. Biden probably would not have been able to successfully walk that tightrope if he had been perceived domestically as conceding anything to Xi.
Those variables largely predetermined that the San Francisco summit would not accomplish much and probably have little lasting effect. Biden and Xi reached important agreements on several tactical bilateral issues, but the core underlying sources of tension and mistrust were not addressed, and the fundamental political, structural, and historical obstacles to rapprochement remain intact. Washington and Beijing will continue to wrestle with the challenge of “developing principles” for managing the relationship and building “guardrails” around it and a “floor” under it. But progress will be halting as long as both sides are unwilling or not prepared to assume the risks and responsibilities of reciprocal accommodation.