It’s good that Biden and Xi are making efforts to talk again, despite limited hopes for a breakthrough when the leaders meet today at the APEC summit in San Francisco.
Although expectations are low as to what can be accomplished during such a fraught time between the two countries, it is a positive sign that the Biden-Xi meeting is taking place at all.
This comes at a time when Biden views Xi as a leader who seeks to overturn the U.S.-created rules-based order in favor of a world system more accommodating to autocracy.
Xi believes that Biden is trying to stymie China’s rise through systems of economic, diplomatic and military containment.
It is no wonder, therefore, that tensions continue to abound in U.S.-China ties. Just a few of the sources of Washington’s concern involve China’s sweeping claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea; Taiwan Strait tensions; human rights violations against Uyghurs and others within China; trade disputes; China’s support of Russia, North Korea and Iran amid the wars in Ukraine and the Holy Land; espionage (spy balloons, etc.) and intellectual property theft; AI technology competition; export restrictions; the fentanyl crisis; and raids, exit bans and probes of China-based American companies.
Put simply, China’s status as a peer to peer competitor along with its efforts to reshape the world according to its values and interests make the U.S.-China relationship Washington’s key military, diplomatic and economic challenge of the 21st century.
Given these dynamics, there is a lot at stake in how American presidents handle their summits with Chinese leaders, and this is true of Biden’s meeting with Xi today.
At this week’s APEC summit, the U.S. and China have both shared and contrasting objectives.
Xi aspires to get economic growth in China back on track. Part of this involves persuading the Biden administration to scrap tariffs on trade and to rid of export controls that prevent China from acquiring advanced semiconductors and chipmaking equipment. Xi also hopes to reassure American companies that China is a reliable place to invest.
For perspective, it is important for Xi to stabilize ties with the U.S. in order not to exacerbate ongoing problems with China’s domestic economy that involve slowing growth, sharp declines in foreign direct investment, youth unemployment, high levels of public debt and real estate bubbles.
Additionally, Xi will push Biden to curb arms sales and rhetorical support for Taiwan ahead of its presidential election in January.
Meanwhile Biden is looking to reestablish channels of communication between the U.S. and Chinese militaries which China broke off in 2022 after then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Biden is also calling for China to resume cooperation in counter-narcotics to deal with the fentanyl crisis in the U.S. while urging China to use its influence with Moscow and Tehran to deescalate the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East.
An area of potential shared concern involves Biden and Xi possibly agreeing to form a working group that would be purposed to align climate change policies.
Additionally, both Washington and Beijing appear intent on forming an agreement that artificial intelligence (AI) will not be used for the command and control of nuclear weapons.
Against the backdrop of APEC, however, are a long list of Washington’s security-related concerns about China. Going forward, Washington will need to implement hard power measures to deter Chinese aggression and constrain the menacing behavior Xi has employed with his pressure campaign against Taiwan, the bullying of smaller Asian states and the militarization of the South China Sea. Some of these needed U.S. policies include:
•Reconstruct America’s industrial base to allow the domestic manufacturing of armaments.
•Expand and modernize the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force.
•Work with Pacific allies to deploy short and intermediate range conventional missiles in select locations of Asia (Japan, Philippines, Australia, Pacific Islands, etc.).
•Add Japan to the AUKUS defense partnership.
•Broaden The Quad.
•Support targets of Beijing’s economic coercion campaigns, such as Australia and Japan.
•Harden defenses at U.S. facilities in South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Australia and Guam.
•Modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons program and resolve outstanding problems with America’s hypersonic missile capabilities and missile defense systems.
•Allocate larger annual military budgets north of US$1 trillion.
•Deepen Washington’s economic and military engagement with Indonesia, Vietnam and the Pacific Islands.
Yet, it would be misguided for Washington to handle its relations with Beijing through security measures alone. To this end, today’s Biden-Xi meeting is an opportunity to put guardrails on the relationship while encouraging responsible competition.
The world is looking to both the U.S. and China to manage this consequential relationship in a trustworthy manner, and both powers need to have honest, authentic conversations based upon mutual respect.
This will require political courage and ongoing commitment by both Biden and Xi as well as their successors.
A constructive move by China would be to reassure the world that it does not seek to replace or supplant the rules-based order, and that it will pledge to act as a benevolent power.
The U.S., while maintaining its military role as a stabilizing force in the region, must do more to increase its economic and trade presence throughout the Indo-Pacific and work with China to achieve peaceful resolutions in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. Washington must also be more accommodating with higher education regulations and welcome more Chinese students and scholars at American universities.
People-to-people, cultural and academic exchange programs that have been shuttered in recent years need to be revived with funding from both sides of the Pacific.
Furthermore, the energies of the Chinese and American peoples ought to come together to address common issues and interests, i.e., public health, global economic stabilization measures, combating arms proliferation, climate change, counterterrorism, drug enforcement, keeping the peace on the Korean Peninsula as well as joint non-military research of space, the oceans, pharmaceuticals and disease.
Through deterrence and diplomacy, incremental improvement in the relationship is possible. This will need to involve Biden and Xi abandoning their periodic zero-sum approaches and work towards building, to the extent possible, some level of strategic trust while engaged in competition.
Peace in the Asia Pacific in large measure depends on the careful stewardship of the U.S.-China relationship and today’s Biden-Xi meeting is an important part of this equation. This week’s APEC summit needs to set the tone for both countries finding areas of collaboration and committing to not give up on making progress in areas of disagreement.