There were smiles for the camera, handshakes, warm words and the unveiling of a couple of agreements. But beyond the optics of the first meeting in more than a year between the leaders of the world’s two biggest economies, not an awful lot had changed.
President Joe Biden hinted as much just hours after the face-to-face talks, confirming that he still considered his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, a “dictator.”
Beijing hit back, with foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning telling reporters Biden’s remark was “extremely wrong and irresponsible political manipulation.”
As a scholar of US-China relations, I believe ties between the two countries can be best described as an “enduring rivalry” – a term used by political scientists to denote powers that have singled each other out for intense security competition.
Examples from history include India and Pakistan, France and England, and the West and the Soviet Union. During the past two centuries, such rivals have accounted for only 1% of the world’s international relationships but 80% of its wars.
History suggests these rivalries last around 40 years and end only when one side loses the ability to compete – or when the two sides ally against a common enemy. Neither scenario looks likely any time soon in regards to Beijing and Washington.
“[China] is a communist country … based on a form of government totally different than ours,” Biden said after his meeting with President Xi.
That comment gets to the heart of why diplomacy alone cannot reset US-China relations. Washington and Beijing are not rivals due to any misunderstanding that can be sorted out through talks alone.
Rather, they are rivals because of the opposite reason:
They understand each other only too well and have come to the conclusion that their respective world outlooks cannot be reconciled.
The same is true for many of the issues that divide the two countries – they are framed as binary win-lose scenarios. Taiwan can be governed from Taipei or Beijing, but not both.
Similarly, the East China and South China Seas can be international waters or Chinese territory while Russia can be crippled or supported.
For the United States, its Asian alliances are a force for stability while for China, they are hostile encirclement. And both countries are right in their respective assessments. Diplomacy alone is insufficient to resolve a rivalry. At best, it can help manage it.
Part of this management involves finding areas of agreement that can be committed to. Last week, Biden and Xi announced deals over curbing China’s production of the deadly drug fentanyl and the restoring of high-level, military-to-military dialogue.
Again, committing to restarting high-level dialogue is one thing while following up on it is another. History is dotted with occasions when having an open line between China and the US has not meant a whole lot in times of crisis.
In 2001, when an American aircraft collided with a Chinese jet over Hainan Island, Beijing did not pick up the phone. Likewise, during the Tiananmen Square massacre, then-President George H.W. Bush tried to call his counterpart Deng Xiaoping but was unable to get through.
Moreover, focusing on what was agreed to in talks also highlights what was not, such as a substantial shift in power that forces one side to concede to the other.
For example, China wants the US to stop selling arms to Taiwan. But Washington has no intention of doing this, as it knows this will make the disputed island more vulnerable.
The US would like China to end its military displays of strength over the Taiwan Strait but Beijing knows doing so risks seeing Taiwan drift toward independence.
American policymakers have long said what they want is for China to “change” – which means to liberalize its system of governance. But the Chinese Communist Party knows that doing so means self-liquidation.
Every communist regime that has allowed space for alternative political parties has unraveled.
That is why American attempts to engage China are often met with suspicion in Beijing. As former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin commented, engagement and containment policies have the same aim – to end China’s socialist system.
For similar reasons, Xi has shunned attempts by the US to bring China further into the rules-based international order. He saw what happened when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev tried to do that in the late 1980s – it only hastened the Soviet Union’s demise.
Instead, Xi calls for a massive military buildup, the reassertion of Chinese Communist Party control, and an economic policy based on self-reliance.
The encouraging words and limited agreements hammered out between Xi and Biden should also not distract from the actions that continue to push the US and China further apart.
Similarly, Biden has continued the US path toward military alliances aimed at countering China’s threat, entering a trilateral agreement with Japan and South Korea.
That came two years after the establishment of AUKUS, a security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom and the US that has similar aims.
Washington will continue to tighten the screws on China’s economy through investment restrictions. Biden is well aware that easy-flowing money from Wall Street is helping China weather choppier economic waters of late and is keen to turn off the tap.
This is not to say that diplomacy and face-to-face talks are pointless. They do, in fact, serve a number of interests.
For both men involved, there is a domestic upside. For Biden, playing nice with China projects the image of a statesman – especially at a time when, due to Washinton’s positions on Ukraine and the Middle East, he is facing accusations from the political left of being a “warmonger.”
Encouraging Beijing to tread softly during US election year may blunt a potential line of attack from Republicans that the administration’s China policy is not working.
Still, Xi is able to showcase his own diplomatic skills and present China as an alternative superpower to the US and potentially cleave the Western business community – and perhaps even major European nations – from what he would see as an American anti-China coalition.
Moreover, summits like the one in San Francisco signal that both the US and China are jointly committed to at least keep talking, helping ensure that a rocky relationship does not descend into anything more belligerent – even if that doesn’t make them any friendlier.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.