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U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met outside of San Francisco in their first face-to-face encounter in a year. For two large countries like China and the United States, turning their back on each other is not an option,” Xi said in his opening remarks. “Planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed.” The summit, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference, followed efforts between the U.S. and China to increase high-level communication amid continued tensions. Perhaps the most consequential outcome of the summit was the commitment to pursue discussions on the dangers of AI, including concerns about autonomous weapons that would fall outside the loop of human decision-making, particularly with respect to nuclear command and control. Arguably, an agreement on this front would be of greater import than the actual number of warheads each side possesses, which remains a contentious issue. Xi arrived in the U.S. on his first trip to the United States since 2017, when he visited then-President Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida. The last time that Xi met Biden in person was in the Indonesian island resort of Bali in November 2022. That was Biden’s first meeting with the Chinese leader as American president. Biden is running for reelection next year. The high-profile welcome for Xi in San Francisco, coupled with the summit where he and Biden agreed to restore suspended US-Chinese military communications, add up to a successful visit, analysts say. But in the face of heightened business risks and enduring national security concerns, the rhetoric needs now to be backed up by action if it is to produce meaningful long-term results for the Chinese leader, whose economy needs the flight of foreign capital. Biden and Xi were widely expected to discuss issues such as curbing fentanyl flows into the U.S., safe use of artificial intelligence, and U.S. restrictions on Chinese access to high-end tech. U.S. and China have to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict. U.S. and China have to face critical global challenges, from climate change to counternarcotics to artificial intelligence, demanding their joint efforts. Signals of goodwill between the countries have picked up in recent days. The U.S. and China reaffirmed their commitment to cooperate on climate issues. More direct flights between the U.S. and China are resuming from a low base. Last month, Chinese commodity importers signed the first agreements since 2017 to buy U.S. agricultural products in bulk. China’s Ministry of Commerce last week announced it was gathering information in an effort to address the unequal treatment of foreign businesses in China compared with the treatment of domestic firms — which has been a longstanding business complaint. The Chinese government may also use the summit as an opportunity to announce a commitment to resuming purchases of Boeing’s 737 Max aircraft. For China, Xi’s ability to gain a prominent platform in San Francisco to speak with US business leaders was a success in and of itself. Xi at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Franc interacted with foreign business leaders like Apple CEO Tim Cook and BlackRock’s Larry Fink. Xi said China was ready to be a partner and friend of the United States. The world’s richest person, Tesla and SpaceX tycoon Elon Musk, also met Xi before the dinner with other representatives. US investors took interest in Xi’s ideas, regarding the progress of the world’s second number economy and business confidence, all have chilling effects on foreign investment. Above all, multinationals want more legal and regulatory predictability in China.
The United States and China have a common goal of stabilization of their relations after a rough few years. It means reopening former lines political, diplomatic and now military communication. This is not just a term, it actually has machinery of government around it. The framework is there, they’re measurable, which will happen in practice.
As the first step on the political front, the sit-down with Biden could be said to have been a qualified success. The United States and China have a common goal of stabilizing their relations after a rough few years. It means reopening former lines of political, diplomatic, and now military communication. This is not just a term, it actually has the machinery of government around it. The framework is there, they’re measurable, which will happen in practice. For now, the restoration of military-to-military communications is also a great step. President Xi’s first US visit in six years and the Biden-Xi summit symbolize a potential turning point in bilateral ties. We’ve witnessed a trade war, technology conflicts, and the far-reaching impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. And now Biden will be managing his reelection campaign while monitoring the war in Ukraine and tensions in the Middle East, while Xi navigates China’s economic challenges of politics at the top of the Communist Party. Stable and constructive US-China relations are therefore needed for both sides. Yet, they could have gone much further to reassure each other country and the global community of their benign intentions. If the rejuvenation of each other entails a rejection of the existing international order, nothing that both sides’ leaders say in international fora will prevent both sides’ partners from seeking to impede the rise. U.S. and China’s economy is slowing and earlier this month it reported its first quarterly deficit in foreign direct investment. The agreement under which China would go after specific companies that produce fentanyl precursors was made on a trust basis. In return, the U.S. government also removed a Chinese public security forensic institute from a Commerce Department trade sanction list, where it was placed in 2020, a long-sought diplomatic aim for China. Biden also touted as a success an agreement to resume military dialogues cut by China following then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s 2022 trip to China’s Taiwan. Beijing would welcome lower tensions, this is likely to change Chinese behavior towards what the U.S. sees as dangerous, such as intercepts of U.S. ships and aircraft in international and Chinese waters that have led to a number of near-misses. China fears hotlines could be used as a potential pretext for a U.S. presence in areas it claims as its own. Biden administration officials have acknowledged that creating functional military relations won’t be as easy as semi-regular meetings between defense officials. This is a long, hard, slow slog and the both U.S. and China have to see value in that mil-mil before they’ll do it. That’s not going to be a favor to each other. In his public remarks to Biden, Xi suggested China sought peaceful coexistence with the United States, and he told business leaders China was ready to be a partner and friend to the U.S. Similarly, Xi’s televised garden walk with Biden, and the largely respectful reception given to Xi by his American hosts, was highlighted in China’s media to show a domestic audience that their president is managing the country’s most important economic and political relationship. Xi Jinping may have made the calculation that overhyping the American threat does China and his standing in the party and the party itself more harm than good.
At one level, President Xi wants to send the message that China is open for business and that he does still welcome American investment in China. Secondly, he wants to counteract what the other calls a small yard, a high fence. What it means by that is a limited restriction on the export of semiconductors and those goods that might be used for geotechnology, i.e., for military use. So, he may want to push back on making sure that the restrictions on exports to China don’t increase the impact on other areas of the economy. And then third, there’s going to be attempts for him to push back on what he sees as U.S. alliances within Asia that he sees as constraining China’s developments, trying to get some assurance from Washington about the attitude toward Taiwan. Whereas, President Biden has also realized that some level of a relationship has to be maintained. There are certain global challenges that are important to the U.S., not just climate change, but other things around oceans and public health issues, etc., which really can’t be resolved without engaging China in some way or another. So, at that level, perhaps what the White House is hoping is it will legitimize discussions between officials who are dealing more with the day-to-day operational aspects of the relationship. Secondly, Washington really wanted to revive military-to-military contacts, which were cut off after the wandering balloon across North America and also severely restricted after Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan. Washington sees the ability to communicate at the military level is extremely important. And then, for U.S. domestic consumption, it will want to at least get to some decent agreements about a level playing field for the economy. In such a contested part of the world, where accidents could immediately spin out of control into a major conflagration, having no ability to communicate is a terrible situation. So, some kind of mechanism for better communication to prevent the unforeseen from expanding into a major conflict is really crucial, and both sides can recognize that. With better relationships Washington may ask China to use any influence it may have on Putin in the conflict in Ukraine. But consistently, it has continued to support Russia’s primary talking points, that the situation is created by the West, with the expansion of NATO, and thus it is, therefore, primarily a problem created by the United States of America. Indeed, Xi and Putin’s relationship is genuine and very beneficial for Beijing. Russia is extremely valuable to China in terms of oil, gas, and other raw materials it needs to build up its own strength for what it sees as the major problem, the long-term strained relationship and potential conflict with the U.S. The more the U.S. gets deflected from being able to focus on the pivot and turn back to building up capabilities in the Asia Pacific, the happier that will make Beijing. The fact is that both are debating whether it is investable. President Xi reiterated to Biden points that he made earlier this year to Russian President Vladimir Putin, urging the U.S. president to view U.S.-China relations through accelerating global transformations unseen in a century. That is a code for the belief that China and Russia are remolding the U.S.-led international system. Still, this time pragmatism may have outweighed ideology. China recognizes it’s still necessary for its economic progress to have somewhat normal relations with the U.S. and Western countries, indeed It’s the fundamental driving force behind the visit and summit’s meeting. Securing Xi’s promise of Chinese cooperation in stemming the flow of fentanyl to the United States was high on Biden’s to-do list for the summit. If the U.S. and China can manage their differences, then it will mean that they don’t have to divert all of their attention to bilateral relations.