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Takeaways from the Biden-Xi summit, where low expectations were met

Nov 16, 2023, 5:30 AM

President Joe Biden and China's President President Xi Jinping walk in the gardens at the Filoli Es...

President Joe Biden and China's President President Xi Jinping walk in the gardens at the Filoli Estate in Woodside, Calif., Wednesday, Nov, 15, 2023, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperative conference. (Doug Mills/The New York Times via AP, Pool)

(Doug Mills/The New York Times via AP, Pool)

(CNN) — It happened, therefore it was a success.

President Joe Biden’s summit with China’s President Xi Jinping south of San Francisco Wednesday may have closed a trap door under the world’s most critical diplomatic relationship, which has plunged to its most acrimonious level in 50 years.

Related: China has a sweeping vision to reshape the world — and countries are listening

But with expectations set so deliberately low and with each side having significant incentives to declare the meeting productive, it was hardly an achievement that the mood music was upbeat after four hours of talks, punctuated by a lunch of herbed ricotta ravioli, tarragon roasted chicken and almond meringue cake.

Biden came away hopeful that he had eased the risks posed by US and Chinese forces operating in perilously close quarters in the Asia-Pacific, which he wants to avoid escalating into yet another politically ruinous global crisis during his reelection bid next year.

Xi needed to make a statement to his domestic constituency in the communist hierarchy that he has vital US relations under control at a time of economic strife. He also needed to send a signal that China now sees it in its interest to deescalate tensions with other major powers, especially the US, after a fraught chapter.

Yet the important but incremental progress made at the Georgian revival-style mansion will do little to mitigate the factors driving the US and China toward a more dangerous rivalry.

Styling his approach to Xi as “trust but verify,” Biden explained after the summit that while China and the US were in a competitive relationship, “my responsibility is to make it … rational and manageable, so it so it doesn’t result in conflict – that’s what I’m all about.”

Xi, while arguing that the world was big enough for both the US and China to coexist, warned that the United States should not scheme to “suppress or contain” his country, expressing Beijing’s belief that the US desire to compete with its rising rival is really aimed at thwarting China’s rightful destiny.

That’s a disconnect that a single summit had no hope of redressing.

The two leaders are talking again

An agreement to re-establish contacts between the US and Chinese militaries may be the most important thing Biden does this year.

“Vital miscalculations on either side can cause real, real trouble with a country like China or any other major country,” Biden told reporters.

The potential for US and Chinese naval or air forces to stumble into an incident over or on the South or East China seas is one of the nightmare national security scenarios that keeps officials and foreign policy analysts awake at night. The United States has, therefore, been trying for months to restore communication severed by China after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last year.

The Biden administration is worried about scores of what it calls “unprofessional” operations by Chinese planes and ships near US assets. For instance, a Chinese fighter came within 10 feet of a US Air Force B-52 bomber last month. A downing of a US plane or a collision between ships could set off a dangerous escalation that would be difficult to defuse, not least because of fraught political reactions it would unleash in both countries. The emergency landing of a US spy plane on Hainan Island in 2001 after a collision with a Chinese fighter took days of intricate diplomacy to resolve and return the crew. China is now far more aggressive, nationalistic and powerful, and a similar incident would be even more combustible.

Even in the darkest days of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union maintained contacts to prevent misunderstandings spiraling into Armageddon. And even amid tensions sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, top brass in the Pentagon work to deconflict their operations with Moscow in war zones like Syria. The absence of such dialogue with China has been startling.

Full details of the new military-to-military contacts were not yet available on Wednesday. But the success of such efforts will depend on whether agreements made by Xi filter down to lower levels of the People’s Liberation Army forces. And local incidents or wider crises between the US and China could easily reverse Wednesday’s limited progress – as happened after Pelosi’s Taiwan trip or during the flight of a Chinese spy balloon across the United States earlier this year.

But a lowering of the threat of misjudgments or misunderstandings alone may justify Biden’s decision to meet Xi.

Biden balances his job as commander in chief with huge political risks

Biden knew his meeting with Xi would unleash a political firestorm.

Just talking to China is enough to trigger claims that the president is appeasing an enemy. Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned as the summit ended that Biden had “yet again undermined US national security interests.” The Idaho senator added: “China is not a normal country – it is an aggressor state. Biden is caving to Xi in exchange for a series of meaningless working groups and engagement mechanisms.”

Republican presidential candidates have lacerated Biden over his handling of Beijing. They have the luxury of not being responsible for stabilizing the world’s most critical diplomatic relationship and an incentive to misrepresent the intricacies of a complex situation. China bashing has long been a feature of US presidential elections, dating back at least to Democrat Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory over Republican President George H.W. Bush. But the vitriol has been especially stark this year, with GOP candidates like former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis implying that louder rhetoric on its own would force China to bow to US power.

Biden had huge political incentives to make this summit a success but also needed to show he was tough on Xi.

He cannot afford, for instance, a blow-up with China in his reelection year. Already, the US is stretched as wars rage in Ukraine and the Middle East. More turmoil would fuel GOP claims that he’s old and weak and bolster Republican front-runner Donald Trump’s accusations that the world is spiraling out of control under Biden’s watch.

It was also significant that the first thing Biden said in his news conference was about a deal with Xi to stem the export from China of precursor chemicals for fentanyl that are creating a deadly narcotics epidemic in the US. It’s one thing for China to agree to curb such activity. It’s another for it to act. But Biden will save many lives if the agreement works. And he now has the talking point for the campaign trial.

In his news conference, Biden several times stressed he had been “blunt” with Xi. That’s a function of a tense diplomatic relationship. But it’s also an insurance policy against GOP claims he’s caving to China.

Xi faces his own political heat

While he’s the most powerful Chinese leader in decades and rules a communist autocracy that allows no dissent, Xi also faces political pressures and constraints – to an extent often not appreciated in the US.

Xi arrived in San Francisco after a period of unusual turmoil in Chinese politics, firing both his foreign and defense ministers in recent months. China’s economy, meanwhile, is facing multiple crises, including a collapsing housing market and ballooning youth unemployment.

“There (was) an incentive for this meeting to go really well. China’s economy is stagnant. … They have a lot of troubles at home,” Sue Mi Terry, a former George W. Bush and Barack Obama National Security Council official now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told CNN’s Erin Burnett.

Xi needs to reverse a drain in foreign investment at a time when many US executives and academics question whether fierce Sino-US tensions will threaten their personal security if they even visit the country. This helps explain a charm offensive in the official Chinese media in the hours leading up to the summit – and Xi’s meetings with US business executives in San Francisco and a dinner with American friends he made on a long-ago trip to Iowa as a junior provincial official.

Next year will not simply be a turbulent one in US-China relations because of the American presidential election. The Taiwanese election in January will also pose a severe test. Xi came to the summit seeking public reaffirmation from Biden that the US still backs the “One China” policy that states the democratic island is part of China. “I’m not going to change that, that’s not going to change,” said Biden, who has nevertheless repeatedly irked Beijing by saying he’d defend Taiwan if China attacked.

A senior US official said that Xi impressed upon Biden that China wanted peaceful reunification but laid out conditions that would call for the use of force. The official said Xi remarked: “‘Look, peace is all well and good, but at some point we need to move towards resolution more generally.’”

The fundamentals of the relationship won’t change

Expectations were low heading into the summit. And they were met.

While both sides want to avoid a disastrous confrontation, the trajectory of US-China relations appears destined to bend toward confrontation, which must be constantly managed to prevent an eruption into open conflict.

Washington believes that China is the one nation that can usurp the US as the dominant global power. Biden’s formal national security strategy, a document required by Congress, says China is “the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it.”

But Chinese leaders view US actions to balance Beijing’s bid to become the leading Indo-Pacific and global nation as attempts to thwart its rightful development and destiny. A recent New York Times analysis of Xi’s speeches, for instance, showed that while he has reassured US presidents that he’s keen to find areas of cooperation and defuse geopolitical tensions, he’s spoken at home of an inevitable rivalry with a US adversary he views with fatalistic suspicion. In the simultaneous translation of his remarks Wednesday, Xi appeared to imply the strains in the relationship resulted from US attitudes, saying that while conflict and confrontation would have “unbearable consequences” for both sides, “it’s unrealistic for one side to remodel the other.” A translation of official Chinese script in state media reinforced his point, reading, “It is unrealistic to try to change each other.” One interpretation is that Xi is warning against US attempts to moderate Chinese behavior, either domestically on issues like human rights or business or geopolitically in its region and beyond.

Biden is correct. It is vital for the presidents of the world’s two greatest powers to have a way of communicating in the event that conflict beckons. Both Trump and Biden argued that they had unique understandings and connections with Xi. But does the Chinese leader feel the same way? While Washington often argues that despite irreconcilable strategic goals, the US and China can work together — on climate or global security, for instance — Beijing is less publicly effusive about the idea.

Right now, opening up slightly to the US appears to be in Xi’s interests. But the forces driving the powers toward further confrontation are broad and volatile. Meeting low bars at a moderately successful summit will not change the fundamentals of their rivalry.

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Takeaways from the Biden-Xi summit, where low expectations were met