Foreign Policy

What to Count on From the Biden-Xi Digital Summit

U.S. President Joe Biden is set to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping in a virtual summit on Monday evening, the White House announced on Friday, at a time of escalating tensions over Taiwan, human rights, and the South China Sea, and which could help set some guardrails around a relationship of global importance.

The meeting, the two leaders’ first following phone calls in February and September, comes amid forebodings of a new cold war as Beijing rapidly builds up its military and economic capabilities. Despite a detente of sorts at the most recent U.N. climate change summit in Glasgow, Scotland, enmity between the world’s two superpowers has only grown. Chinese fighter jets have flown a record number of flights over Taiwan in recent months, and trade tensions haven’t diminished. China’s nuclear arsenal, while smaller than America’s, is catching up—as are its missiles.

On Tuesday, a U.S. congressional delegation arrived in Taiwan on a U.S. military plane, a trip that was swiftly condemned by the Chinese defense ministry; China considers Taiwan, never governed by the People’s Republic of China, to be part of its territory. Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army conducted readiness drills near the Taiwan Strait. The United States is a staunch supporter of the island’s right to self-determination but has been intentionally vague about whether it would be drawn into a war over Taiwan’s future—continuing four decades of strategic ambiguity.

U.S. President Joe Biden is set to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping in a virtual summit on Monday evening, the White House announced on Friday, at a time of escalating tensions over Taiwan, human rights, and the South China Sea, and which could help set some guardrails around a relationship of global importance.

The meeting, the two leaders’ first following phone calls in February and September, comes amid forebodings of a new cold war as Beijing rapidly builds up its military and economic capabilities. Despite a detente of sorts at the most recent U.N. climate change summit in Glasgow, Scotland, enmity between the world’s two superpowers has only grown. Chinese fighter jets have flown a record number of flights over Taiwan in recent months, and trade tensions haven’t diminished. China’s nuclear arsenal, while smaller than America’s, is catching up—as are its missiles.

On Tuesday, a U.S. congressional delegation arrived in Taiwan on a U.S. military plane, a trip that was swiftly condemned by the Chinese defense ministry; China considers Taiwan, never governed by the People’s Republic of China, to be part of its territory. Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army conducted readiness drills near the Taiwan Strait. The United States is a staunch supporter of the island’s right to self-determination but has been intentionally vague about whether it would be drawn into a war over Taiwan’s future—continuing four decades of strategic ambiguity.

“What we’re looking for is effective competition with guardrails and risk-reduction measures in place to ensure that things don’t veer off into conflict,” U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a virtual address to the Sydney-based Lowy Institute on Thursday, speaking about the broader U.S.-China relationship.

Top U.S. officials and a bipartisan consensus in Congress have singled out China’s increasing assertiveness, economic might, and military buildup as the single biggest national security challenge facing the United States, as Washington seeks to rally partners around the world and collaborate on areas of mutual interest such as climate change, public health, and economic stability.

“While the Biden administration has been very successful thus far on the alliance-building front, we’ve yet to see the establishment of a sustainable working relationship with China, largely because of Beijing’s resistance to the Biden administration’s proposed framework,” said Patricia Kim, an expert on the U.S.-China relationship at the Brookings Institution.

While expectations are muted, Monday’s meeting offers an opportunity to reframe the relationship. The first high-level meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, in March saw charged exchanges between top U.S. and Chinese diplomats. “The first nine, 10 months of the U.S.-China relationship [under Biden] have not been very productive. There’s been a lot of exchanges of talking points and senior-level meetings where both sides have been posturing and speaking to their domestic audiences,” said Bonnie Glaser, the director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

In a letter to the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations this week, Xi said China was ready to work with the United States. “Right now, China-U.S. relations are at a critical historical juncture. Both countries will gain from cooperation and lose from confrontation,” he said in the letter to the New York-based nonprofit.

The two leaders will meet amid a growing recognition in both capitals of the need to kick diplomatic engagement up a gear so as to stave off a potentially catastrophic clash.

“The Chinese are going to be looking for some reframing of the relationship. They really don’t like this ‘competition, confrontation, and cooperation’ way of describing the relationship,” said Carla Freeman, a senior expert on China at the United States Institute of Peace.

Recent months have offered some tentative indications of a thaw in aspects of the relationship, including the resumption of trade talks in October and a deal brokered by the U.S. Justice Department that led to the September release of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who was arrested in Canada in December 2018 on a U.S. extradition request based on fraud charges.

“That was a huge obstacle for China, and they portrayed it as such a win domestically,” Glaser said.

On Wednesday, the United States and China issued a surprise joint statement during the U.N. climate change summit, vowing to take further action to slow global warming this decade and to reduce methane and carbon emissions. The declaration from the world’s top two greenhouse gas emitters was short on specifics but was seen as an important marker of Beijing and Washington’s willingness to collaborate on shared challenges.

“I would count the upcoming summit as a success if the two leaders are able to jointly affirm that neither side seeks conflict or a new cold war and that they are empowering officials at the working levels to lay the foundations for responsible competition, including jointly working on pressing issues such as crisis management, nonproliferation, and climate change,” said Kim of the Brookings Institution.

Beijing, too, has domestic politics that constrain it. Glaser pointed to the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics and next year’s party congress, which is expected to coronate Xi with a nearly unprecedented third term in office. “The Chinese seem to be signaling that they need a favorable international environment in the coming year, and I think that’s one of the reasons why they have changed their tone at least in dealing with the U.S.,” she said.

But in a relationship riven by strategic challenges, it may not last long. A looming stumbling block is the Beijing Winter Olympics, set to begin in February 2022. Lawmakers and human rights groups have urged the Biden administration not to send any senior officials or diplomats to the Games in protest over the mass incarceration of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in the Xinjiang region, which the United States has labeled a genocide.

In June, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States was consulting with allies and partners on the issue, but the administration has not yet announced whether it will send a delegation to the Games.

The administration has taken a number of strong stances on human rights in China, maintaining and expanding Trump-era sanctions related to the genocide in Xinjiang, warning U.S. businesses about the safety of doing business in Hong Kong, and recently calling for the release of Zhang Zhan, a citizen journalist imprisoned after covering the early days of the COVID-19 spread in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

But Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, said she was concerned by statements by senior U.S. officials such as John Kerry, Biden’s top climate envoy, which seemed to silo human rights off from other aspects of the U.S.-China relationship.

“In the Chinese Communist Party’s mind, these are not different things,” she said. “We’ve been trying to make the point for a long time that it’s very hard to have a really workable cooperation on anything … with a government that so clearly and consistently shows profound disdain for international law and binding bilateral treaties and that to proceed without putting that problem at the center strikes us as deeply problematic.”

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