How US-China ties have crumbled – and where Xi and Biden could rebuild

When Chinese leader Xi Jinping meets U.S. President Joe Biden in San Francisco on Wednesday, it will be first and foremost an opportunity for the two heads of state to show the world – and their own people – that they can responsibly manage relations between the two superpowers.

Asian countries’ leaders, especially, will be eager for signs that China and the United States are making progress in stabilizing relations at the Biden-Xi meeting, to be held on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. A regional forum with 21 members mainly in Asia and the Americas, APEC accounts for nearly half the world’s trade and about 62% of its gross domestic product.

Messrs. Xi and Biden no doubt have much to discuss, from regional tensions – in the Taiwan Strait, South China Sea, and Korean Peninsula – to the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, and existential issues such as global warming. The two leaders last met face-to-face a year ago in Bali, Indonesia.

While no major breakthroughs are expected, experts say the meeting is likely to result in modest progress on issues ranging from military-to-military communications to counternarcotics and climate.

To be sure, the Biden-Xi meeting – a product of months of intensive diplomacy by both sides – itself marks headway in steadying ties between Washington and Beijing, which frayed due to tensions over trade, technology, Taiwan, human rights, and other issues.

“Both sides are trying to present to the rest of the world that they have things under control,” says Oriana Skylar Mastro, author of the forthcoming book “Upstart: How China Became a Great Power.” That, she says, requires “predictable, high-level engagement.”

Spiraling U.S.-China ties

In the six years since Mr. Xi last visited the United States in 2017, Sino-U.S. relations have spiraled downward, reaching a low point unprecedented in the more than 40 years since the two countries normalized relations in 1979.

Washington’s concerns with Beijing’s rollback of reforms, heightened domestic repression, military buildup, and assertiveness overseas since Mr. Xi took power in 2012 have united key American constituencies in a rare bipartisan consensus to get tough on China. Beijing, meanwhile, views the U.S. as a waning power bent on containing China’s rise, and bridles at growing U.S. unofficial cooperation with Taiwan, which China claims as part of its territory. Antagonism has grown, exacerbated by increasingly hard-line rhetoric in both capitals.

Since 2020, the pandemic and vulnerabilities exposed in supply chains brought an intensified focus on national security and self-sufficiency. This is the case especially in China but also in the U.S., where the Biden administration has taken targeted measures to curb the transfer of technology to China that could aid China’s military and surveillance capabilities.

Many regular exchanges – both official meetings and the unofficial flow of students, tourists, and family members – were disrupted or halted during the pandemic. Direct flights between the U.S. and China dwindled to a handful of round trips per week, compared with more than 300 a week in 2019. U.S. public attitudes on China grew more negative, mirroring a trend in Chinese opinion.

China’s strict “zero-COVID” policies and a regulatory crackdown by Mr. Xi also dampened economic growth and pushed youth unemployment to record highs, hurting the confidence of Chinese consumers, private firms, and foreign investors.

“We have seen really large outflows” of foreign capital from China, with new foreign direct investment hitting a 25-year low this year, says Joyce Chang, chair of global research at J.P. Morgan.

Recent Chinese police raids and arrests at foreign firms – and China’s use of exit bans to prevent foreigners from leaving – have spooked the international business community and other travelers.

“China is not a transparent system ... [and] companies are understanding the opaqueness of that structure puts their interests at risk,” says Kimberly Glas, member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. “American companies are looking at other markets.”

Breaking off contact

In the past 18 months, two major incidents led Beijing and Washington to suspend many governmental contacts. The visit to Taiwan in August 2022 by former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – the first House speaker to visit the island in 25 years – led China to cancel military-to-military exchanges and many other contacts. Beijing also launched massive military exercises around Taiwan. Then in January, the flight of a Chinese surveillance balloon over the U.S. led Washington to postpone a planned February visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing.

The upshot was a several-month delay in the implementation of agreements by Messrs. Biden and Xi at Bali to resume high-level dialogues and put a floor under relations.

Since June, however, Washington and Beijing have achieved fresh momentum, with visits to China by Mr. Blinken, several other Cabinet-level U.S. officials, senior American lawmakers, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom. This was followed by trips to Washington by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and other senior Chinese officials.

“Beijing and Washington ... [have] a shared desire to make sure that where this competition is occurring, it’s happening deliberately, it’s not happening unintentionally,” said Rick Waters, managing director for China at the Eurasia Group and a former State Department official.

“You need to have channels at a senior level that are empowered so you can at least understand the other sides’ intentions,” he said during a Thursday panel hosted by Foreign Policy.

China’s main Communist Party mouthpiece, People’s Daily, said on Sunday that the U.S. and China have arrested the decline in relations, and share a “special responsibility” to tackle global challenges. “To be responsible to the world means to ... lead global cooperation,” it said in a commentary.

Opportunity for progress

In their meeting this week, Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi are likely to agree to resume military-to-military contacts, which the Biden administration has described as a top priority. The lack of reliable crisis communications between Washington and Beijing has emerged as a glaring gap as the two militaries operate in the Taiwan Strait and East and South China Seas.

The risk of an accidental collision has grown, experts say, as Chinese fighter jets have recently conducted unsafe intercepts of unarmed U.S. reconnaissance planes patrolling in international airspace over the East China and South China seas. One video released by the U.S. Department of Defense showed a Chinese fighter jet within 10 feet of a B-52 on Oct. 24. “You run that experiment of 10 feet … 10 or 20 times – you’re going to get a collision or near miss,” says Jude Blanchette, Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“Leaders on both sides know just how dangerous the situation is,” says Lyle Goldstein, director of Asia engagement at Defense Priorities. “These are two nuclear superpowers.”

Experts say other potential agreements could focus on:

  • Collaborating on law enforcement actions to stem the flow from China of precursor chemicals used to make the illegal drug fentanyl.

  • Increasing direct flights between China and the U.S.

  • Expanding people-to-people ties.

  • Creating a working group on curbing climate change.

  • Banning artificial intelligence in controlling nuclear weapons and drones.

Longer dialogues are needed to tackle major problems, such as how to deescalate tensions over Taiwan, experts say, pointing, for example, to the two-day summit between Mr. Xi and President Barack Obama at the Sunnylands estate in California in 2013.

Yet they caution that political pressures in both China and the U.S. are constraining progress. In this charged atmosphere, a sudden crisis – such as the balloon incident or an accidental collision of U.S. and Chinese military aircraft – could again derail progress as both sides feel compelled to show strength.

In the best-case scenario, Mr. Blanchette says, the Biden-Xi meeting will “unlock the Chinese system to really push for meaningful discussions ... with the United States on shared challenges and mutual antagonisms.”

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