Global Agenda

Biden-Xi Jinping meeting: a search for a stable trajectory in US-China relations

Jerguš Lajoš

The recent meeting between US President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in San Francisco that took place on 15 November was a key moment in the complex mosaic of bilateral relations. The two leaders met for the first time since November 2022, with the main issue at stake being whether a positive trend could be set in the mutually strained relations between the two world powers. Economic rivalry, espionage, the Taiwan issue and many other points of contention have complicated these. When the two leaders met for the first time since November 2022, the world was watching with bated breath, hoping for signs of a thaw in strained relations that have reached a peak in recent

times. The importance of the four-hour meeting was underlined by China’s largest state-run newspaper, the People’s Daily, which referred to it as a “new starting point” for Sino-US relations. This sentiment was echoed on Chinese social media, where calls for mutually beneficial relations were made. The meeting, which took place on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, was not just a diplomatic formality – it was seen as a breakthrough in the wake of escalating tensions.

Against the backdrop of this encounter, many challenges played out. The spy balloon affair in February further strained relations, adding to existing problems such as China’s claims to Taiwan and the South China Sea, as well as the US bans on high-tech exports. The resulting disruption in diplomatic relations prompted a series of visits by senior US officials to Beijing during the year, suggesting a concerted effort to remedy the current situation. These diplomatic efforts culminated in an anticipated summit with the clear objective of stabilising relations and finding common ground amid a number of contentious issues. Although the meeting produced some positive results, such as an agreement to resume military communications and cooperation in the effort to counter the importation of fentanyl into the US, significant points of contention remained. The so-called “chip wars” and the complex issue of Taiwan were major concerns, underscoring the difficulty in finding comprehensive solutions. Chinese state media portrayed the meeting positively, with state-run China Central Television devoting considerable coverage to President Xi’s visit to San Francisco. Social media in China reflected a mix of enthusiasm and caution, with users expressing a range of views on the historical significance of the meeting and its potential impact on the future of US-China relations. Economic considerations played a decisive role in the dynamics of the summit. Both President Biden and President Xi saw the meeting as an opportunity to prevent their competing economic relations from escalating into a more contentious confrontation. Despite US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s assurances that the Biden administration was not interested in economic decoupling, the credibility of these claims was undermined by the maintenance of the previous administration’s duties. The decline in U.S. trade and investment flows with China relative to other trading partners has fueled suspicions in Beijing about the true intentions of the United States.

The resumption of dialogues between the two armies was a welcome step, but it has met only minimal expectations. The commitment to resume defence policy coordination talks and military naval consultation meetings has addressed immediate concerns, but the durability and effectiveness of these channels remain uncertain. The history of U.S.-China bilateral military dialogue suggests that mutual defence contacts are often used as leverage in response to broader policy objectives. The challenge now is whether these dialogues can actually defuse rising military tensions or whether they are merely symbolic gestures in a broader context of strategic competition.

The summit did not fundamentally change the status quo on the most disputable issue between the US and China – Taiwan. The delicate balance that the two countries have maintained over the past half-century, when they were at odds over the island’s ultimate relationship with the People’s Republic of China, remains intact. Tensions over Taiwan are likely to persist as President Xi sees reunification as crucial to China’s future. On the other hand, the US sees protecting Taiwan from coercion as essential to its standing with regional allies and the broader international order. One of the significant outcomes of the summit was the agreement of both leaders to oppose the threat or use of nuclear weapons, particularly in Ukraine. Both Biden and Xi Jinping reiterated that a nuclear war should never be fought or won. The common stance against the use of nuclear weapons is a positive development given Russia’s recent covert nuclear threats against Ukraine. However, the Chinese speech showed hesitancy and lacked an explicit condemnation of nuclear threats. Nevertheless, the talks opened the door to discussions on nuclear arms control.

There was a surprising development before the summit itself, as the United States and China officials met in Washington for talks on nuclear arms control. This was the first such meeting in almost a decade, a marked shift away from China’s long-standing reluctance to engage in such a dialogue. The expansion and modernisation of China’s nuclear forces is a concern, and the talks provided a glimmer of hope for lasting regulatory improvements in this area. The international community, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, could benefit from an eventual easing of nuclear trends. The summit also achieved a modest result on artificial intelligence, with an agreement to start formal discussions between governments on this technology. The details of these discussions were not explicitly stated, leaving room for speculation about the scope and content of the talks. Both leaders affirmed the need to address the risks posed by advanced AI systems and improve

AI security through bipartisan government-to-government discussions. This marks a crucial step in navigating the evolving AI governance landscape, in which the U.S. and China are at the forefront of technological advances. In conclusion, the Biden-Si summit was a wide-ranging meeting that addressed a variety of issues affecting the complex web of U.S.-China relations. While the meeting did not mark a definitive reset, it offered glimmers of cooperation amid deep-seated competition. The trajectory of this critical bilateral relationship will continue to be determined by the delicate balance between economic interdependence, military tensions, and diplomatic complexities. As both nations grapple with domestic challenges and global responsibilities, the path forward remains uncertain and requires fine-tuned strategies and diplomatic dexterity to navigate the complex challenges on the horizon.

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