A few weeks back, the state of Sino-American relations appeared to have reached a relative nadir in over three decades since 1989.
Whether it be the trade war that had commenced in 2018, the COVID-19 pandemic that began in 2020 and its ensuing economic turmoil, or the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, it appeared that there was far more for Beijing and Washington to disagree over than to build common ground.
These background factors were additionally aggravated by escalating tensions over the Taiwan Straits, looming uncertainty over the Chinese economy in face of ever-tightening public health measures and dissipating market confidence given the precipitous geopolitical risks, and, of course, the Biden administration’s sweeping bans on China’s semiconductor industry in early October.
The Uneasy March Toward De-escalation
There was every reason to think that bilateral antagonism and mistrust were spiraling out of control. Both sides were talking past one another in terms of frameworks of reference, priorities, and perceptions concerning the status quo. Both held themselves to be in a position of relative strength – though perhaps the perception of strength, as it would later turn out, is by no means an innate detriment.
On October 30, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a conversation with Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi – the only diplomat elected to the 24-member Politburo of the 20th Party Congress, and thus widely tipped to be the likely successor to Yang Jiechi as the CCP’s top diplomat. In the conversation, Blinken leaned into his previous messages on keeping “lines of communication [open]” and urging China to “responsibly manage the U.S.-PRC relationship.” Wang Yi reciprocated by urging Blinken to “study the Party Congress report” and “correct its severe infringements of free trade principles” (a reference to the CHIPS Act and other tariffs pursued by Washington over imports from China). The call likely paved the way for the face-to-face meeting between the two presidents at the G-20 summit in Indonesia.
On November 9, Ambassadors Nicholas Burns and Qin Gang met before the latter’s departure for Washington. While the conversation’s contents are off the record, the meeting itself spoke to the working relationship between the two most senior diplomats for China and the United States – and the endurance of their personal ties amid increasingly challenging circumstances. Qin Gang has been touted as a likely successor to Wang Yi – and has maintained the conciliatory approach to his tenure in Washington that his predecessor, Cui Tiankai, espoused.
On November 14, Presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden engaged in a three-and-a-half-hour-long conversation on the sidelines of the ongoing G-20 Summit. While no substantial, concrete policy breakthrough was established, the meeting was pivotal for other reasons – it was the first in-person conversation held between Xi and Biden in their capacities as the heads of their states (the last time they met in person was at Davos in 2017, while Biden was vice president).
The recently concluded Biden-Xi summit yielded three takeaways. The first is an indication that both parties are keen on restoring lines of communication and selective collaboration – after many exchanges were frozen in the aftermath of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s contentious visit to Taiwan in August. Biden stressed the need to maintain “open lines of communications … between [Xi] and [Biden] personally” but also between their respective governments.
Xi’s response – while relatively muted on the question of personal relations and ties with Biden – stressed the need for China and the United States to “work with all countries to bring more hope to world peace,” echoing Xi’s long-standing commitment to his conception of a multipolar world order, but also signaling that he saw communication and liaison with the U.S. as an instructive component of preservation of peace. The long-standing slogan of “win-win cooperation” was touted by Xi as the desired modus vivendi for the relationship. Talks over climate change – to be spearheaded by Xie Zhenhua and John Kerry – are due to be resumed.
The second takeaway is that there are “baselines” that neither Beijing nor Washington would be open to relenting upon, notwithstanding the partial de-thawing. For Beijing, these include areas such as Taiwan, China’s adherence to socialism, and the distinctive logic of governance pursued by the country. For the United States, these include its geostrategic interests in the Indo-Pacific (including Taiwan) and national security.
The two lists of non-negotiable issues appear to converge upon Taiwan. Biden’s express affirmation that Washington opposes any unilateral alterations to the status quo may be perceived by the Chinese delegation as ringing hollow; China’s pledges to refrain from deploying military means may be received with a similar level of skepticism from the other side. However, in a palpable shift in tone from Blinken’s prediction that Beijing had planned to speed up its seizure of Taiwan, Biden stated that he did not believe an attack on Taiwan would be “imminent” – a sign, perhaps, that Washington was keen to downplay the risk and need of military escalation in the region.
The final takeaway was a series of concessions and signals of openness to cooperation in non-baseline areas that hold significance beyond their substantive contents. Notably, for the first time on record, Xi openly called upon and invited “the United States, NATO, and the EU” to undertake direct dialogue with Russia, with the hope of securing de-escalation. This is a significant departure from China’s previous stances, where the U.S. and NATO were noticeably excluded from its advocacy of a China-EU-brokered ceasefire in Ukraine. Additionally, Xi gave an unambiguous and explicit statement that China would oppose the deployment of any form of nuclear weapon over Ukraine (chiefly, by Russia), while Biden affirmed that the U.S. hopes to work together with China on tackling the global food crisis, and that Washington did not view Sino-American relations as constitutive of a “New Cold War.” The evening proved vital in supporting at least a détente in tone, if not in substance, between the two rival powers.
Decoding the Uneasy Peace
The signs for the uneasy peace emerging between China and the United States are clear – there is peace, insofar as both parties are reticent to engage in a direct military confrontation over flashpoints in the Taiwan Straits and South China Seas (Biden has left the question of the Korean Peninsula open). Such peace is nevertheless fragile, for there exists a range of potential triggers that would – if activated – lead to rapid deterioration in relations.
The emergence of this uneasy peace can be attributed to the following factors. The first is that both heads of state are arguably at their strongest politically in recent years. The 20th Party Congress delivered a Politburo of 24 and a Politburo Standing Committee of seven that were unanimously loyal to Xi. His work report was an effective veneration of Xi’s extensive policy directives over the past five years across domains of wealth redistribution, technological sufficiency and innovation, zero-COVID and the securing of public health, and crackdowns on corruption. As Xi embarked upon his third term, he oversaw a party leadership staffed with politically reliable technocrats equipped with remarkable experience in fields including environmental science, public health, and space technology. The conclusion of the 20th Party Congress has eliminated any residual uncertainty over Xi’s leadership – including concerns that he was too “soft” in face of perceived American provocation. This, in turn, enabled him to engage in the constructive diplomacy embodied by his meeting with Biden.
Similarly, the strong showing of Democrats in the U.S. midterm elections – holding onto the Senate and limiting a Republican onslaught in the House – vindicates and thus bolsters Biden’s track record thus far. It also provides the White House with greater leeway and flexibility over domestic and foreign policy agendas. Despite the broad bipartisan consensus over China’s constituting a significant “rival” to the U.S.-led world order, differences do exist: Democrats have long sought to adopt a more multi-faceted, cooperate-compete-confront trifecta in relation to China; the vastly divided Republican policy toward China, on the other hand, comprises an eclectic mix of America-centric isolationism and whimsical lash-outs (among Trump supporters), restrained realism and pragmatism (amongst generations of Republicans who have stood for closer economic integration with China), and a predominantly military, unilateral approach to the “China threat.” The divisions among the Republican Party would generate significant unpredictability and likely vacillations. Such policy risks were partially mitigated by Democrats holding onto their majority in the Senate.
Russia’s gradual march toward defeat in Ukraine is an additional factor. Russia has suffered vast setbacks in recent weeks, with ignominious retreats and expulsions from Kharkiv and Kherson and substantial casualties among its military forces. Attempts to force Ukraine to come to the negotiation table have backfired for the Kremlin, with the latter effectively compelled to clarify that it has no intention to seek a nuclear escalation.
Beijing is well aware, by now, that its prior stance of strategic ambiguity and military neutrality, paired with economic support, over the war is simply untenable. For China, repairing relations with the European Union and the United States is vital in ensuring that it is not cut off from preeminent global supply chains, consumption economies, and technology and innovation. While Xi is unlikely to jettison Russia, which he deems to be a strategically and economically vital partner in creating China’s envisioned world order, he remains fundamentally cognizant of the need for China to hedge against the potential risks of a total Russian defeat. This has materialized in the series of olive branches extended over recent weeks – first towards the EU (via German Chancellor Olaf Scholz) and now, the United States.
Finally, both Biden and Xi need one another’s support for their respective domestic agenda. Biden must confront an economy in 2023 that is riddled with a double whammy of inflation and stagnation. Xi, on the other hand, is seeking to rejuvenate the Chinese economy after two years of devastation under the country’s stringent “dynamic zero” COVID-19 policy. Both economies would clearly benefit from the capital injections and resumption of trade with minimal barriers – these are low hanging-fruits that nevertheless require some semblance of a normal working relationship to drive forward. The Bali meeting – and the ensuing “peace” of sorts – is hence as much a product of economic necessity as of strategic calculations.
Beware Grey Rhinos
The conjecture of an uneasy peace rests upon the premise that there would be no abrupt triggers or disruptions that – once activated – would compel both sides to break the peace.
An easily conceivable risk – e.g., a “grey rhino” – would be an event that triggers rapid deterioration in relations between Beijing and Taipei, whether it be through an accidental skirmish, a military exercise gone awry, or pronouncements from the (hitherto relatively constrained and savvy) Taiwanese government. Such an event would then present Beijing and Washington alike with a pressing dilemma – failing to escalate could undermine decades worth of credibility and deterrence built up through complex and intricately worded threats of retaliation; to escalate, on the other hand, would drag China and the United States into limited, then full-out, military confrontation. The escalatory spiral, once activated, could well be unbridled.
Indeed, it may not even take an active military conflict for the peace to be disrupted – a further escalation in the intensity of technological competition between China and the United States could culminate in either side feeling that they are left with no choice but to prosecute active retaliation. While the resumption of communication lines and – hopefully, in due course – more robust track II dialogue and exchanges could aid with ameliorating the mistrust permeating bilateral interactions, it would be difficult to speak of and reconstruct trust when the leaders of either of the countries are convinced that the other harbors the desire to existentially stifle the other’s growth trajectory.
There may not be many more China-U.S. summits to come, unless Beijing and Washington alike recalibrate toward the tacit agreement that two superpowers could co-exist in the world.