Although the virtual meeting between the US and Chinese leaders has led to no big breakthroughs, both sides expressed willingness to cooperate on “guardrails” to keep competition from getting too dangerous.
US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met for a three-hour virtual summit Monday. The talks failed to produce any major breakthroughs, but nevertheless provided a welcome sign that both leaders are working towards managing strained US-China relations with more transparency and stability.
As China increasingly asserts its clout as a global power, potentially rivaling the US on several fronts, there is a growing risk that competition could turn to conflict.
Monday’s summit was the first formal meeting between Biden and Xi since the US president took office in January.
According to official accounts of the talks, Biden raised US concerns about human rights abuses and unfair trade practices. Xi warned the US on Taiwan, saying Washington’s support for Taipei was “playing with fire.”
However, despite this continued friction on big bilateral issues, opening statements from the summit indicated that Washington and Beijing could be moving towards what foreign policy analysts call “managed strategic competition” in pursuing goals.
The framework, conceived by former Australian Prime Minister and China expert Kevin Rudd, envisions intense diplomatic and economic competition, defined areas of collaboration such as on climate change, and “hard limits” on each country’s security policies to avoid “accidental escalation.”
“Our responsibility as leaders of China and the United States is to ensure that the competition between our countries does not veer into conflict, whether intended or unintended. Just simple, straightforward competition,” Biden said in opening remarks surrounded by aides in the White House’s Roosevelt Room.
“We need to establish some commonsense guardrails, to be clear and honest where we disagree, and work together where our interests intersect,” Biden added.
In opening statements made through an interpreter, Xi said that China and the US “need to increase communication and cooperation.”
“China and the United States should respect each other, coexist in peace, and pursue win-win cooperation,” Xi said.
“A sound and steady China-US relationship is required for advancing our two countries’ respective development and for safeguarding a peaceful and stable international environment,” the Chinese leader said, adding that he was “ready to work” with Biden on “building consensus,” and moving China-US relations “forward in a positive direction. ”
“The purpose of a summit-level meeting like this is a confidence-building measure aimed at putting on guardrails to make sure that as both sides compete, it will not escalate into a catastrophe,” Wen-Ti Sung, a China scholar at Australia National University, told DW.
Taiwan remains most contentious issue
However, managing competition is easier said than done, and tension will be inevitable as Washington and Beijing continue to pursue their interests.
The most hot-button issue between the US and China remains Taiwan, which took center stage at Monday’s meeting, as Beijing insists on “reuniting” self-governing Taiwan with the People’s Republic.
“We are patient and are willing to strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification with the utmost sincerity,” Xi told President Biden, according to Chinese state media.
Xi also said China would take “resolute measures if the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces provoke, compel or even cross the red line.”
For Beijing, the “red line” would be Taiwan declaring independence, as the Communist Party considers democratic Taiwan to be a renegade Chinese province.
Tensions around Taiwan have increased recently, as China conducts regular military exercises near Taiwan and the US increases weapons sales and informal diplomatic support.
According to Chinese state media, Xi has blamed current tension on “attempts by the Taiwan authorities to look for US support for their independence agenda as well as the intention of some Americans to use Taiwan to contain China.”
The White House said that Biden told Xi during their discussion that the US would stand by the longstanding “One China” policy, allowing for informal relations and defense ties between Taipei and Washington, but not for official recognition from the US of Taiwan as an independent state.
However, the White House added that Biden affirmed that the US “strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
“I think Taiwan should take the outcome of this summit with cautious optimism,” said Wen. “If we get one message out of the summit, then that is competition will be the main theme governing US-China relations,” he said, adding that any sign that Washington and Beijing are occasionally cooperating in the future doesn’t indicate the US is abandoning its support for Taipei.
“Whenever we see signs of competition between the US and China, it doesn’t mean there is only a one-way street with contest, conflict and war. And when we see signs of cooperation, it also doesn’t mean that the US is capitulating towards China,” Wen said.
“Taiwan should focus on ensuring that it remains indispensable and it remains a responsible and considerate partner to liberal democracies around the world. But do so in a way that doesn’t obviously cross China’s red line,” he added.
Where do US-China relations go from here?
Dexter Roberts, senior fellow at the Asia Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington, told DW that Monday’s summit may have jumpstarted dialogue, but that substantive agreements between the US and China remain unlikely.
On the economic front, Roberts cited China’s mercantilist industrial policies creating unfair economic advantages for Chinese companies, and the US responding with policies that “aim at basically destroying some of what China perceives as its economic and business national champions like Huawei.”
“I think they could definitely ease tensions and make incremental progress on things like intellectual property rights that the US has been worried about. But longer term, I’m afraid there are some insurmountable obstacles on trade,” Roberts said. “I think those issues aren’t going to go away.”
However, both experts said lower-level meetings between Chinese ministries and their counterparts are likely to follow the summit.
“The fact that top-level leaders on both sides can directly communicate in a relatively cordial atmosphere will have the effect of normalizing and legitimizing regular interactions and negotiations between working level officials down the food chain,” said Wen.
“In that sense, it will contribute to a somewhat improved atmosphere, but in terms of substantive agreements, we are still a long way off,” he added. “Both sides are still at the bargaining stage. They are trying to fight over what political foundation a working relationship can be built upon.”