US President Joe Biden engaged in a crucial face-to-face meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation or APEC summit in San Francisco this week.
This high-stakes diplomatic encounter was aimed at alleviating tensions between the world’s two superpowers.
The meeting carried immense significance as leaders of the world’s largest economies seek to establish a sense of stability following a challenging year in US-China ties.
Even though both leaders have said they want to stabilize their relationship, the meeting is unlikely to bring about transformative changes between the two countries that are inherently antagonistic due to deeper structural reasons.
Washington and Beijing are enmeshed in a grand power competition in which China aspires to supplant the United States as a superpower while the US aims to maintain its position.
This rivalry spans various facets of global politics, encompassing military, economic and technological domains. However, the contours of this new Cold War differ markedly from the previous one, with key distinctions:
- In contrast to the Soviet Union, China is intricately woven into the American-built economic order. Beijing’s integration into the global framework has been instrumental in its substantial economic development. Unlike the Soviet Union, which existed outside this economic order, China’s active participation has transformed the dynamics of the current geopolitical landscape.
- The economic interdependence between Washington and Beijing sets this rivalry apart. Unlike the relatively self-contained economies of the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, China relies on the American market for its product sales, while the US depends on China for financial transactions.
- People-to-people contact between the US and China surpasses the ties between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. With a 5.4 million-strong Chinese diaspora in the US and 300,000 Chinese students studying in American universities, the connections between both countries make outright hostilities less likely.
In this context, the term “cooperative rivalry,” coined by American political scientist Joseph Nye, aptly characterizes Chinese-American relations.
The challenges of our globalized world — including climate change, pandemics, artificial intelligence, and human security — necessitate active Chinese participation. These challenges make it particularly important that the US and China stabilize relations.
The emphasis on competition over cooperation needs to be shelved. Both nations should seek equilibrium by fostering cooperation in areas of mutual interest while navigating competition in areas of divergence.
Already complex relations between Washington and Beijing have been tense. China was miffed when former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan last year.
Because China asserts territorial claims over Taiwan, a stopover in the US by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen added to the list of contentious issues.
Tensions escalated to the point that China severed military-to-military communications with the US after Pelosi’s Taiwan visit, despite repeated American appeals for China to reopen these lines of communication to prevent accidental escalations of conflict in the South China region and Taiwan.
When the US downed the Chinese spy balloon, Beijing contended that it was conducting meteorological research. American authorities, however, insisted it carried surveillance equipment inconsistent with a weather balloon.
In response to the incident, Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled his planned visit to Beijing in protest.
Subsequently, China declined to reschedule the trip for several months. This communications void at both military and political levels between China and the US posed a significant risk of potentially dangerous consequences.
One of the outcomes of the meeting between Biden and Xi is that military-to-military discussions will resume.
Prior to the meeting, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan emphasized the importance of addressing fundamental aspects of the US-China relationship, highlighting the need to strengthen open lines of communication and responsibly manage competition to prevent it from escalating into conflict.
He acknowledged the necessity of “intense diplomacy” to clarify misconceptions and avert surprises.
As for China’s economy, it is experiencing a slowdown, marked by falling prices due to subdued demand from both consumers and businesses.
With a projected economic growth of 5% this year and an expected dip to 4.5% in 2024, these economic challenges have adversely affected Xi’s domestic political standing. That may be behind any motivation to improve relations with the US to address these domestic issues.
Biden, too, is keen on stabilizing relations with China. Confronted with escalating conflicts in the Middle East and the ongoing war in Ukraine, he is eager to avert the emergence of another global crisis during his tenure.
Restoring a semblance of stability to the Washington-Beijing relationship has been among the top priorities in his foreign policy agenda.
List of grievances
One summit alone cannot resolve the extensive list of grievances between the two superpowers. Those challenges include issues like espionage, intellectual property theft, human rights abuses, foreign interference, and trade penalties, as well as the sensitive matter of Taiwan.
The meeting addressed another point of contention between the two countries – fentanyl shipments. Biden and Xi announced an agreement intended to stop China’s illicit exports of chemicals that can be used to make the drug that has led to the overdose deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans.
The deal on re-opening communication channels at both military and civilian levels is also a crucial step in improving China-US relations.
It might serve as a foundation to prevent relations from spiraling out of control and lay the groundwork for addressing broader challenges in the future.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.