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Post-Biden-Xi summit, could the US and China be on a path toward détente?

U.S. President Joe Biden shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before their meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit meeting, Monday, Nov. 14, 2022, in Nusa Dua, in Bali, Indonesia.
Alex Brandon/Associated Press
U.S. President Joe Biden shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before their meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit meeting, Monday, Nov. 14, 2022, in Nusa Dua, in Bali, Indonesia.

“Jaw, jaw, is better than war, war,” Winston Churchill advised in 1954 as the Cold War hardened. So toxic is the downward spiral of the United States’s freefalling relationship with China that just getting to the jaw part was quite an ordeal. Now that the summit between President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping is behind us, did it halt the drift toward conflict and put U.S.-China ties on a path toward détente?

I suspect that, at best, détente is somewhere over the horizon. But both leaders conceived the first face-to-face meeting as an effort to “put a floor under the relationship,” as U.S. officials put it. In the aftermath of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) August trip to Taiwan, U.S.-China ties hit a new low, as Beijing shut down all official dialogue, from climate and trade to military talks.

Both Xi and Biden seem concerned about raging nationalisms in both nations spurred by tit-for-tat demonstrations of resolve like the Pelosi Taiwan visit and China’s over-reaction to it. It seemed to overwhelm the interdependence of the world’s two largest economies, greenhouse gas emitters and military powers.    

While none of the core issues – Taiwan, technology, trade – were resolved in the three-hour meeting, both leaders indicated a desire to manage differences where they cannot be resolved. Xi sent a group of prominent Chinese business leaders, former officials and intellectuals to New York to meet with a similar U.S. group organized by former AIG CEO Hank Greenberg in a backchannel effort to restart exchanges to find common ground.

Already, U.S. and Chinese senior officials have renewed diplomacy: U.S. Trade Rep. Katherine Tai and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met with their Chinese counterparts, as did climate envoy John Kerry, renewing modest cooperation. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will head to China in coming months as well.

Few expect trade or national security concerns to be resolved anytime soon. But U.S.-China trade – despite sanctions, tariffs and growing tech export bans – rose to $657 billion in 2021, up from the previous year, and trade in 2022 is projected to increase by 8 percent.

Meanwhile, China has stepped up its assertive air and naval actions in Taiwan airspace and in the South and East China Seas, and the U.S. has responded with increased naval activity in the region. The hope is to improve risk reduction measures, some that exist on paper, to which the Chinese military has not heeded, and to discuss new guardrails and codes of conduct to avoid incidental confrontation and foster norms of behavior.

Biden’s efforts are complicated by a political climate in Washington in which China is Congress’s favorite punching bag. The GOP House plans an aggressive anti-China agenda, boosting U.S. ties to Taiwan, tightening tech bans, challenging China on human rights and countering military threats, real or imagined.

Ironically, this comes despite that Biden has continued most of former President Trump’s China tariffs and export ban and decoupling of strategic sectors. In October, Biden unveiled the toughest export ban yet, cutting off advanced semiconductor chips and chip-making technology to choke off China’s efforts on artificial intelligence and supercomputer industry.

China’s behavior – from mercantilist industrial policies, repression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, coercion of Taiwan and active efforts to counter the U.S.-led world order – has been offensive to U.S. sensibilities and interests. There’s much to oppose, yet U.S. agency to effect change is limited. It is imperative to choose priorities and know where the limits are.

Taiwan is the most volatile issue, and it is difficult to see how U.S. and Chinese positions can be reconciled. To the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Taiwan is an existential issue — it has made eventual unification key to its legitimacy.

Taipei is not interested. The U.S. is obliged by the Taiwan Relations Act to help defend Taiwan but not to go to war in the event of a conflict. After misspeaking four times about the nature of the U.S. commitment, Biden, in his summit remarks, emphasized a U.S. commitment to the three communiques that have been the basis of U.S.-China relations and emphasized (despite previous contrary remarks) that, “The U.S. is opposed to any unilateral change in the status quo on Taiwan by either side.”

But the flip side of the U.S. bipartisan consensus of who can bash China more is to show who can love Taiwan more. One lesson from the war in Ukraine is that the U.S. should provide ample arms to help Taiwan build a porcupine defense before a conflict.

But some want to go beyond that and adopt measures more likely to provoke China than to deter it. Though being performative seems baked in, Congress would be wise to follow Teddy Roosevelt’s advice to speak softly and carry a big stick.  

Biden and Xi will have to swim against this large tide of grievances on both sides to succeed in stabilizing a bilateral relationship that is shaping the world order. The U.S. and China are in uncharted waters, with a risk of mutual assured economic destruction as they figure out how to disentangle unwanted parts of a complex economic relationship, and as two mature nuclear weapons states find a balance to avoid total MAD.

But the recent Biden-Xi summit seems to reflect a new sobriety, as both leaders looked into the abyss at downside risks. The challenge is for the U.S. and China, respectively, to distinguish between what they must have and what they would like to have. China is not going away. Nor is the U.S. leaving the Pacific or inexorably declining. Both need to accept the limits of their respective power and ambitions.

Ultimately, the U.S. and China need to find a way to manage economic, technological and strategic competition. It took several near catastrophic confrontations like the Berlin and Cuban Missile Crises before the U.S. and USSR reached a stable balance. As China is a multidimensional power, the challenge is greater, but the price of failure to manage coexistence is one both sides would regret.

Robert A. Manning is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. He served as senior counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs from 2001 to 2004, a member of the U.S. secretary of state’s policy planning staff from 2004 to 2008 and on the National Intelligence Council Strategic Futures Group from 2008 to 2012. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.

Tags Biden Biden-Xi meeting China china tariffs Chinese Communist Party Joe Biden Nancy Pelosi United States US-China relations US-China tensions Xi Jinping Xi Jinping

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