Bridging the chasm between Washington and Beijing

A meeting between Biden and Xi at the APEC summit next month would provide a ‘window of opportunity’

US President Joe Biden observed that ties with Beijing would “thaw very shortly” during the G7 summit in Hiroshima in May.

Four months later, the United States and China have taken important first steps to put the balloon incident behind them and stabilize their rocky relationship.

Lines of communication have been re-opened, assurances exchanged, working groups formed and incremental progress recorded. Progress was made even in areas such as export controls

Still, the lack of engagement on their reciprocal tariff hikes and on senior-level defense exchanges remain the key areas where dialogue continues to lag. 

Yet even on that front, a provisional workaround featuring the Pentagon’s top Asia experts and senior Chinese Foreign Ministry officials has been arranged on more than one occasion.

Election year

The proposed meeting between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the APEC summit in San Francisco next month provides a “window of opportunity” to lock down deliverables. 

Washington should remove the Chinese Ministry of Public Security’s Institute of Forensic Science from its Entity List in exchange for a crackdown on online vendors of fentanyl precursors by Beijing. 

The two sides should also amend, update and formally renew their umbrella science and technology agreement – the first was signed post-normalisation in 1979.

It remains to be seen if the envisaged “guardrails” can survive American election year polemics.

The Quad has flagged its opposition to Chinese-Russian moves. Image: Screenshot

However, a greater challenge to devising a strategic framework for US-China relations is the gap between their rival approaches and their perception of the role of neighboring countries.

The Biden administration’s strategy has centered on building “situations of strength” with a “latticework of alliances and partnerships” to dictate the terms of competition to Beijing. 

On the economic front, the US five-pillar strategy aims to pursue an expansive industrial policy at home and work with partners to build a leading-edge techno-industrial base. 

It also moves beyond traditional trade deals to new international partnerships, as well as mobilizing large sums for global anti-poverty and climate change efforts. 

Protecting foundational technologies with a “small yard, high fence” approach is another priority. Four of the five pillars have no role for or aim to decouple from China.

Working relations

Having assembled coalitions such as the Quad, AUKUS, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity and the US-Japan-South Korea trilateral framework, the administration now seeks to cement a “floor” under its working relations with Beijing.

In China’s view, the US strategy aims to exclude it economically, isolate it diplomatically, encircle it militarily and suppress its development technologically. 

Washington’s network of alliances, partnerships and groupings is also seen as an accelerant of major power conflict – not a building block for deterrence and stability.

China faces a delicate balancing act.

Joe Biden and Xi Jinping need to repair US-China relations. Image: File

The primary external ballast of its modernization strategy – an enabling international environment backed by dense trans-Pacific trade and technology exchanges – has shifted ever since the Trump administration labeled China a revisionist power and unleashed a trade and technology war.

China’s preferred economic counterpart today, the European Union, views Moscow – China’s crucial geopolitical power – with repellence. It views Beijing, by extension, with disquiet. 

Balancing these two relationships to its advantage while working out guiding principles to steer China-US ties toward peaceful coexistence is the essence of Beijing’s dilemma.

The United States and China hold discordant views regarding their interests, terms of engagement and conceptions of order. 

Peace structure

With the ongoing rearrangement of the Indo-Pacific’s strategic furniture, a “structure of peace” that features a predictable network of rules and relationships among major powers is unlikely to emerge. 

A stable equilibrium will not come from a clash of rival interests, and the administration’s canvassing of “on-demand” cooperation on one-sided terms will not leaven the underlying tendencies.

Going forward, it is crucial for Washington and Beijing to candidly share their divergent perspectives within a steadying framework. 

The ambition should be to craft overarching principled understandings and embed them over the passage of time in their conduct of relations. Both countries should do this with good faith that maintains consistency between words and deeds.

China’s military drills have ramped up the pressure on Taiwan. Photo: PLA

Common actions could flow from these shared convictions. ‘Five noes’ were tendered by Biden during his virtual meeting with Xi in 2021 and reiterated in Bali a year later. 

The United States “does not seek a new Cold War, does not seek to change China’s system, does not support Taiwanese independence, does not seek conflict with China and does not direct its alliances at China.”

Xi reciprocated with “three noes” in Bali, insisting that China “does not seek to change the existing international order or interfere in American internal affairs and has no intention of challenging or displacing the US.”

These principles provide a judicious and steadying framework for future-oriented ties.

Like the Nixon-Brezhnev ‘Basic Principles’ agreement of 1972 that facilitated productive cooperation in exchange for restraint and moderation, the two presidents should memorialize their “noes” in a joint statement.

New era

Washington and Beijing should lock down near-term deliverables at the San Francisco APEC Summit. 

They should also seek to lessen the gap between their rival approaches by committing to a revamped relationship founded on these principled understandings in this new era of strategic competition.

Sourabh Gupta is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies in Washington.

This article is republished from East Asia Forum under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.