Grappling with rising tension between the US and China

Talks between Biden and Xi at the APEC Summit could put a range of issues on a firmer footing

Officials in Joe Biden’s administration have visited China four times over the past few months, but nothing concrete seems to have come of their efforts. Can next week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation or APEC Summit really make a difference?

This meeting matters because the US President and Chinese leader Xi Jinping have only met once since Biden became president – on November 14, 2022, for a three-hour talk on the Indonesian island of Bali during a summit of the Group of 20

That meeting was extraordinarily important because ties had cratered at the time and it allowed the leaders to discuss each country’s red lines.

Immediately after the G20, China resumed talks with the United States on climate issues. They also appear to have restarted military-to-military talks to prevent their forces from clashing

With the APEC Summit in San Francisco, here are four areas to watch in Washington’s relationship with Beijing: 

  • Taiwan: The most important issue is bound to be Taiwan. China considers the island part of its territory and opposes Taiwanese independence. Xi will want Biden to reiterate the United States’ position that it does not support Taiwanese independence.
  • He may also hope Biden will say that Washington has no preferred candidate in Taiwan’s upcoming national elections – Beijing’s goal being a victory for the opposition Kuomintang or KMT Party, which has a softer position toward China.
  • Fentanyl: The US side will probably want China to commit to stemming the flow of chemicals used to make fentanyl, a dangerous drug that has become a leading cause of death among young Americans.
  • Such a commitment would allow Biden to show that his foreign policy is aimed at helping ordinary people and not just elites.
  • Israel-Hamas war: Less likely is a statement on the Middle East, such as the Palestinian territories, where China has positioned itself as a leader of the Global South and against the US-led world order and allies, including Israel.
  • Beijing will not want to take a strong stand in support of either side in the war, however, so as not to anger trading allies, so the topic is likely to be sidelined.
  • Climate action: China and the US could issue a statement on fighting climate change, which would be a major shift given that neither is a leader on climate action despite being the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters.
  • Washington is politically divided over the issue, while Beijing is pushing ahead with green energy yet also building new coal-fired power plants.
Xi Jinping was elected to an unprecedented third term. Photo: Wikimedia

In short, don’t expect huge breakthroughs. Gone are the days when presidents and premiers met Chinese leaders and came back with a briefcase full of business deals or other “deliverables.” And that’s not a bad thing. 

Those meetings were often empty, and many of the deals didn’t pan out – letters of intent to invest often languished, and China sometimes promised market access without delivering. Even though it’s easy to reject “empty talk,” it’s important that top leaders keep the channels of communication open. But isn’t that true for all countries? 

No, it matters more in dealing with China. The reason is that Beijing makes it hard for US officials to understand who is advising Xi or what the decision-making channels are. 

Last year, he was appointed to an unprecedented third term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, a position that essentially allows him to run China indefinitely. 

Earlier this year, he got a third term as president, but this is an honorific title in the Chinese political system. Now that he’s ended term limits, Xi is surrounded by people who owe their allegiance to him almost exclusively. 

Circle of loyalists

Meanwhile, people of his age – he turned 70 earlier this year – have all retired. Also worrying is that China’s foreign and defense ministers both appear to have been sacked, and the heads of the military’s prestigious Rocket Force were also purged earlier this year, two rare examples of trouble at the top. 

The changes make it even harder to fathom who is running the show beyond Xi and his immediate circle of loyalists. So there’s a real possibility that he is surrounded by yes-men, who might not want to tell him bad news. 

In this context, it matters that the president of the United States can talk to him directly to explain why American perceptions of China are so negative and what the direct risks this could bring. It’s not clear, for example, if Xi is directly aware of risky maneuvers by the Chinese military in recent weeks – notably, the buzzing of a US bomber flying in international airspace. 

Decisions about such exercises are probably made by commanders on the ground, but they are based on guidelines issued by Beijing. Letting Xi know directly that these events are dangerous and potentially catastrophic could be useful.

Are there domestic reasons for Xi to want to meet Biden? Yes, because China is in the midst of a serious economic slowdown and suffering from high youth unemployment. 

Joe Biden has a China dilemma. Courtesy of the White House

Last year, these concerns spurred rare nationwide protests. Even though they were short-lived and didn’t spread that widely, they showed popular unease over typical checkbook issues, such as income, inflation, and housing prices.

There is also a widespread feeling at home and abroad that China is turning its back on the “reform and opening” policies of Xi’s predecessors and turning inward.

In this context, Xi can show that he is managing ties with the United States and has reopened China for business, which could help him allay domestic concerns that China is heading toward war. And for Biden?

He faces reelection next year, and while foreign-policy issues rarely win or lose an election for an incumbent president, it’s important for him to avert a blowup over Taiwan. 

Biden claims to be a foreign-policy expert, and while that’s been put to the test with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Israel-Hamas war, he needs to at least make sure that a new fire doesn’t break out with China.

Israel-Hamas war

So, have recent international crises made China less of a priority for US foreign policy? For years, Washington has been trying to shift its focus away from the Middle East and the “forever wars” of Afghanistan and Iraq, most famously with President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia

Presidents Donald Trump and Biden also focused on Asia, hoping that improved diplomatic ties between Arab countries and Israel were proof that the US doesn’t need to pay so much attention to that part of the world. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine last year and now the Israel-Hamas war have changed that, forcing decision-makers to refocus on Europe and the Middle East. In this context, Biden will hope for a smooth summit with Xi and that the two sides can put aside differences, at least until Election Day next year.

Ian Johnson is the  Stephen A. Schwarzman senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. An expert on Chinese politics, society, and religion, he is the author of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After MaoWild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China, and A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West.

This article, originally a Blog Post, was published by the Council on Foreign Relations under a Creative Commons license. Read the original 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.