When Joe Biden and Xi Jinping meet in Bali on Monday, it will be the most significant test yet of whether the two leaders can reverse what has been a dramatic decline in US-China relations.
After a rocky four years under Donald Trump, China hoped Biden would ease the turbulence. But relations have plummeted to their lowest point since the countries normalised relations in 1979 as they forged a new path in the face of a common rival in the Soviet Union.
“More than four decades later, in the absence of a similar common strategic rival, the growing competition and intensifying set of security, technological and ideological differences are overwhelming the relationship and risk moving the US and China on to a long, frigid course,” said Paul Haenle of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who was a China adviser to George W Bush and Barack Obama.
The US is concerned about issues including China’s military activity around Taiwan, its rapidly expanding nuclear arsenal and its refusal to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Beijing accuses the US of emboldening pro-independence forces in Taiwan, creating quasi-alliances such as the “Quad” to counter China, and trying to contain China with advanced chip-related export controls.
Biden said the leaders would outline their “red lines” to see if there was room to resolve differences. The two men have talked five times since Biden became president, but the efforts have been largely fruitless. US officials hope that their first in-person meeting as leaders will change that.
“There just is no substitute for this kind of leader-to-leader communication in navigating and managing such a consequential relationship,” said Jake Sullivan, national security adviser.
Yet the hurdles remain high. US officials say Xi has not followed through on his comments to Biden a year ago that China would engage in talks about nuclear weapons. It is also hard to imagine how both sides could reach any compromise on Taiwan, which has emerged as the most contentious issue in US-China relations.
Asked this week if he intended to tell Xi that the US would defend Taiwan against an unprovoked attack from China — a statement he has made four times — Biden said: I’m going to have that conversation with him.”
Evan Medeiros, a China expert at Georgetown University, said Biden wanted to stabilise relations and particularly “prevent a downward spiral” over Taiwan. He said Biden would try to reassure Xi that he was not changing the “One China” policy, under which the US recognises Beijing as the sole government of China but acknowledges — without endorsing — the Chinese position that Taiwan is part of China.
But Medeiros cautioned that the deep animosity between the two countries reduced the odds of success. “This one summit will neither rescue nor redefine relations. At best, it may slow the deterioration.”
Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund, said Beijing had signalled that it did not want relations to worsen.
“Perhaps that has given Biden hope that, given our language about wanting to put a floor under this relationship, our objectives overlap,” she said. “So, maybe we’ll be able to make progress. But there’s also a real possibility that this meeting has pretty similar outcomes to prior meetings.”
One Chinese diplomat said there was a chance the meeting would help relations because “both sides are making an effort” and that some issues could be resolved. He said China hoped the US would issue long-delayed visas for Chinese students and that Beijing could make it easier for foreign academics and business people to visit China.
Chinese analysts said some exchanges between officials, which Beijing halted after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August, could be restarted.
“China doesn’t want a new cold war, but we have a lot of requests for the US,” said Zhu Feng, an international relations expert at Nanjing University.
But beyond some low-hanging fruit, Chinese experts were deeply pessimistic. “In the past, security and economic issues were separate pillars in the bilateral relationship,” said Wu Xinbo, dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, who said economic issues were now subordinate to political and security concerns.
Dennis Wilder, a former top CIA China analyst now at Georgetown University, said Biden had “gone overboard” in terms of balancing China and needed to intensify efforts to boost engagement.
“I’m not saying that they haven’t done good things, like Aukus [the US, UK and Australia defence pact], the strengthening of relations with Japan and South Korea and with countries in the Pacific,” Wilder said. “But you have to have engagement with balancing. Otherwise, you’re just headed down a road to mutually assured destruction”
Wang Chong, a US expert at Zhejiang International Studies University, said the meeting could help stabilise ties, coming after the US midterm elections and Xi securing a third five-year term as Chinese Communist party leader.
“The Chinese party congress and US midterms are over. Both countries have more certainty about domestic issues. A meeting would have a positive effect on easing tensions,” Wong said.
While Democrats did better than expected in the midterm elections, Republicans are still likely to take control of the House, which will give more power to GOP lawmakers who want Washington to be tougher on China. It also remains unclear if Xi has confidence that Biden has the ability to reduce tensions, even if that is his goal.
“The Chinese don’t see Biden as an extremely strong president. They think he’s overly concerned about the Republicans and being seen as soft on China,” said one US-China expert.
“There’s also no certainty he will be in power for more than two years, so it’s a question mark as to whether Beijing will continue to invest in him.”
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