Biden and Xi aim to meet as U.S., China try to get on same page

With all eyes on Gaza, a recent series of meetings in Washington between senior U.S. and Chinese officials was slightly overlooked by the news cycle. Those sessions, however, have the potential to bring President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping into the same room as soon as mid-November, when the U.S. is due to host an economic conference in San Francisco.

The last time Biden and Xi met for in-person talks was during the November 2022 G20 leaders’ summit in Bali, Indonesia. Those discussions were a seminal event, not because of anything the two agreed to but rather because the meeting happened at all.

The previous month, the U.S. slapped strict export controls on advanced technology to China, which Chinese officials up and down the Communist Party bureaucracy strongly condemned as a transparent attempt to stifle the Chinese economy and undermine Beijing’s rise as a great power. Several months before that, in August 2022, U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, then the speaker of the House, decided to fly to Taiwan despite the Biden administration’s objections, prompting the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to retaliate with the largest military drills around the self-ruled island in history.

Biden and Xi’s meeting a year ago was meant to reset the U.S.-China relationship in the hope of moving past the acrimony. As the White House said at the time, Biden “reiterated that this competition should not veer into conflict and underscored that the United States and China must manage the competition responsibly and maintain open lines of communication.”

Intentions, of course, mean nothing if they’re not implemented. The cautious goodwill established at the Bali summit evaporated almost instantly as 2022 transitioned into 2023. The infamous Chinese spy balloon episode, in which a blimplike structure with high-tech cameras slowly meandered across the continental United States, dominated headlines for what seemed like an eternity. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who had a trip to Beijing in the works, postponed it in protest of the intrusion.

A U.S. fighter jet eventually shot the balloon down off the Carolina coast, but the entire incident took the form of a giant skunk at the garden party. The balloon cast a shadow over the most important bilateral relationship on the planet, with politicians on both sides embarking on overheated rhetoric and policymakers reluctant to step forward lest they be castigated by the hard-liners as wimps afraid of a fight.

Reopening communications

Despite Washington’s pleadings in the months that followed, Beijing remained opposed to reopening the military communication channels it shut down after Pelosi’s sojourn in Taiwan. During the Shangri-La Dialogue Asian security summit in June, all Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin got from his Chinese counterpart, Li Shangfu, was a stiff handshake; Li has since been pushed out of his post.

Chinese fighter planes are getting bolder in challenging U.S. patrols in the South China Sea, and midair intercepts are becoming more frequent as well. Just last week, a Chinese fighter flew within 10 feet of a U.S. B-52 bomber over the South China Sea in what U.S. Indo-Pacific Command called an “unsafe and unprofessional matter” that increased the possibility of a collision.

Not all dialogue has stopped between the two sides. In fact, conversations picked up over the summer. Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo all traveled to China to meet with their Chinese counterparts. Xi gave Blinken an audience, something he probably wouldn’t have done if he wasn’t at least interested in finding a way to stabilize the relationship. The fact that the Chinese foreign minister returned the favor with a trip of his own to Washington, where he also met with Biden, strengthens the case.

Indeed, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi was almost magnanimous before he began his itinerary: “China and the United States need to have dialogue. Not only should we resume dialogue, the dialogue should be in-depth and comprehensive.” Blinken was inclined to agree, stating in a State Department readout that the U.S. and China “both have a responsibility to manage our differences and to work together on issues that matter to our people and the world.”

War prevention

What are those issues? There are too many to list, but the biggest among them include macroeconomic stability, counternarcotics, climate change initiatives and war prevention. The last item on that list is by far the most important, and it’s getting more important by the day as the U.S. and Chinese militaries continue to shadow one another in the seas and skies of Asia.

This is why the Biden administration views the resumption of regular communication channels as so vital and worth pursuing, no matter how frustrating it may be. If something terrible were to happen, either deliberately or by accident, it would be extremely helpful for the world’s two largest powers to have some mechanism to defuse it before skirmishes snowball into a regional conflagration.

Up till now, Xi hasn’t been amenable to the idea, viewing regularized military-to-military communication with U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific as de facto acceptance of U.S. activities there. Ultimately, Xi’s reassessment of his current position won’t be based on anything the U.S. says or wants but rather on whether he believes more dialogue with the U.S. is in China’s own security interests.

The U.S. and China will continue to see each other as intense competitors. The diplomats will do their best in public to put lipstick on a pig, but some core issues are just impossible to reconcile. At times, the term “competitor” will occasionally turn into “adversary.”

But even adversaries talk. If President Richard Nixon could talk to Soviet Union leader Leonid Brezhnev during the height of the Cold War, there’s no reason why Biden can’t speak with Xi.

Daniel DePetris is a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune. ©2023 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.