Governments around the world were keeping a close eye on this week’s summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden, held on the sidelines of the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in San Francisco. In their first in-person meeting since November 2022 – and just their second since Biden assumed office – the two presidents sought to reframe the relationship to avoid escalation and “responsibly” manage competition.
Biden called his four-hour meeting with Xi “some of the most constructive and productive discussions we’ve had.” China’s foreign minister, in a post-summit briefing to the press, hailed the talks as “strategic” and “historic.”
What did the United States’ Indo-Pacific allies think?
While it’s become an adage that China-U.S. bilateral relationship is the most important in the world, few countries have as much directly at stake as Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea – all U.S. treaty allies dependent on Washington for their security, but closely linked economically with China. Located in the Indo-Pacific region, these countries would bear the brunt of any China-U.S. conflict.
Taiwan, which faces an existential threat from China, is even more invested in China-U.S. relations. Beijing considers Taiwan to be an “inalienable part of China” and reserves the right to achieve full “reunification” by force. With China’s military maneuvers around Taiwan becoming ever-more provocative, the threat of forcible annexation looms large – and the question of how the United States would respond is the subject of immense debate. While Washington is not treaty-bound to defend Taiwan – the two have not had a formal alliance since they severed diplomatic ties in 1979 – it is widely assumed the U.S. would intervene on Taiwan’s behalf.
Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, and the United States have all adopted the “free and open Indo-Pacific” and “rules-based international order” mantras – both diplomatic code for “let’s counter China’s bad behavior.” They have embraced, albeit at times reluctantly, U.S.-led economic measures designed to target China’s access to cutting-edge technology and “de-risk” by reconfiguring trade ties away from China wherever possible.
They have also joined the U.S. in efforts to counter China militarily. Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States launched AUKUS, a new trilateral alliance widely seen as a response to China’s growing military might. Japan and South Korea have been deepening both bilateral and trilateral military cooperation with the United States. The Philippines too has expanded its already-tight military partnership with the U.S. And Taiwan has seen stepped-up arms sales from Washington, as well as more overt military cooperation (although still falling far short of the bilateral drills that characterize a formal alliance).
Given these convergences, all the name of countering China, how are U.S. allies viewing the Biden-Xi summit?
For the most part, positively. Nearly every country in the world – U.S. allies included – has deep concerns about China-U.S. tensions reaching a point of no return, and potentially sparking a great power war. While their alliance (and in Taiwan’s case, quasi-alliance) relationships with the U.S. mean they have effectively already “chosen sides,” none of these countries wants to be forced to entirely write off its relationship with China. In that sense, any progress in China-U.S. relations is both welcome and a relief.
That said, each country’s positioning is unique and worth considering.
Australia actually beat Biden to the punch in securing an ice-breaking summit with Xi: Prime Minister Anthony Albanese visited Beijing and Shanghai from November 4 to 7. Like the Biden-Xi summit, Albanese’s trip to China was the culmination of a broader diplomatic process that had seen the resumption of ministerial-level talks.
With Australia engaged in its own thaw with China, the fact that the United States is taking a similar turn is likely to be a source of relief. A sharp downturn in China-U.S. relations could jeopardize Australia’s own warming ties with Beijing, especially on the economic front.
“From my perspective there are some clear similarities but also clear differences between how the Albanese government and the Biden administration are speaking about their respective efforts at returning bilateral ties with China to some level of equilibrium,” Michael Clarke, an adjunct professor at the Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney, and a senior fellow at the Centre for Defense Research at the Australian Defense College, told The Diplomat via email.
Both are emphasizing the need to stabilize relations and manage competition “responsibly” – and neither is seeking a return “to a presumed earlier and more amicable era of relations.” But, Clarke noted, the United States was more explicit in emphasizing that competition remains a defining feature of the relationship.
“So from the perspective of an ally like Australia,” Clarke concluded, “I think the view will be that while Biden and Xi’s efforts at stabilizing their relations is a good thing, their meeting has demonstrated that ‘competition’ is now the default setting for Sino-U.S. relations.”
For its part, Japan is interested in following the United States’ lead, with Prime Minister Kishida Fumio seeking his own summit with Xi on the sidelines of the APEC summit. For a time, Japan was able to manage the tricky balancing act of keeping engagement with China going despite leaning more and more into the “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept and adopting a more muscular security policy.
That has now changed. Beijing adopted a particularly shrill opposition to Japan’s release of treated radioactive wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear power plant, banning all imports of seafood from Japan in response. China has also been stepping up its military activity near Japan, using both naval vessels and aircraft.
After the Biden-Xi summit, “the U.S.-China relationship has already been sorted out and an agreement on that relationship has been formed in the U.S. and China,” Kawashima Shin, a professor at the University of Tokyo and an expert on Chinese foreign policy, told The Diplomat. “It may be said that competition and its rules are being formed. In contrast, in the Japan-China relationship, there is less dialogue between politicians than in the U.S.-China relationship, and even the nature of the relationship is unclear.”
At the Kishida-Xi summit, the Japanese leader is likely to push for a warmer relationship by seizing on the example of the United States. Kishida’s “pro-China” reputation in Japan has, ironically, constrained his administration from being “proactive in its policy toward China,” Kawashima said, as it faces heavy criticism for any moves seen as overly friendly to Beijing. But with Biden having made his move, Kishida can seek to match it by improving dialogue and communication mechanisms with China.
“Military tensions are currently on the rise in East Asia,” Kawashima noted. “Dialogue and security management are essential if mutual deterrence is to be enhanced. The importance of top-level communication between Japan and China is now at an all-time high.”
The Philippines will have been watching the Biden-Xi summit particularly closely, as Manila is locked in a tense stand-off with China in the South China Sea. Chinese coast guard and maritime militia vessels repeatedly give chase to Philippine boats attempting to resupply Second Thomas Shoal, where the Philippines has troops stationed abroad a grounded vessel. Manila claims the shoal, which is well within its exclusive economic zone; so does China.
Earlier this week, just before Xi departed for California, Chinese vessels used water cannons to attempt to drive Philippine ships away from the shoal. In October, Chinese vessels collided with Philippine boats engaged in a resupply mission.
As the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. leans into a defiant response to China’s actions in the South China Sea, Manila is ramping up defense cooperation with the United States. While Marcos’ predecessor threatened to scrap a key defense deal with the United States, Marcos has taken the opposite tack, expanding the number of bases being refurbished with U.S. funds under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) from five to nine. U.S. forces will also have access to these bases, some of which are in the northern Philippines, near Taiwan.
While run-ins between China and the Philippines continue to make headlines, however, the issue did not feature prominently in the Biden-Xi summit. The official readout from the White House made a brief mention of the importance of “maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea and East China Sea.” Biden himself, in his post-summit press conference, said he had “raised areas where the United States has concerns about the PRC’s actions, including … coercive activities in the South China Sea.” But that was it.
Potentially more worrying is that Marcos was granted a summit not with Biden but with Vice President Kamala Harris – a fact that many Chinese analysts read as the Biden administration distancing itself from Manila and its South China Sea policy.
That seems a stretch, considering repeated affirmations that the United States’ treaty obligation to defend the Philippines extends to the South China Sea. A more likely explanation is that Harris, thanks to repeated trips to the region, has effectively become the Biden administration’s face in Southeast Asia, so continuing that engagement is purposeful.
Did the de-emphasis on the South China Sea, or the VP-level meeting, worry Manila? Not really, according to Richard Heydarian, a well-known commentator on Philippine and Asian affairs. “ I think in the Philippines there is enough realism to appreciate that Biden needs to establish some guardrails in its bilateral relations with China. After all, not only is two-way trade massive, but also no one wants war,” he told The Diplomat.
But the Philippines will also have noted that “neither superpower has budged on any core issue nor can top leaders in the two countries afford to,” Heydarian pointed out. “I see less optimism after this meeting than the one in Bali, especially with U.S. elections and expected China-bashing in DC expected to gain steam in both parties.”
In the end, Manila will be more concerned with actions, rather than words. “And what speaks loudest for the Philippines is action: EDCA projects are pushing ahead with huge momentum and bilateral defense ties are deepening by the minute,” Heydarian said.
South Korea is in a similar position as Japan, with the administration of President Yoon Suk-yeol having taken a noticeably harder line on China. Yoon has been particularly intent on improving relations with both the United States and Japan, and the three countries cemented their trilateral partnership with the Camp David summit earlier this year. While these efforts, from Seoul’s perspective, are largely aimed at addressing the North Korea problem, the Yoon administration has been more willing than its predecessors to expand the scope of trilateral cooperation beyond the Korean Peninsula – to include the China challenge.
It’s clear from the readouts of both China and the U.S. that the Korean Peninsula didn’t feature heavily in the Biden-Xi summit, despite worrying new developments in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs over the past year. But “I don’t think South Korea is concerned about the fact that the Korean Peninsula was not covered prominently in the Biden-Xi summit,” said Miyeon Oh, director and senior faculty lead of Korea Studies at John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. “South Korea understands that there are other pressing issues that are more directly affecting the bilateral relations such as Taiwan, human rights, and export controls.”
Like Kishida, Yoon may be hoping that the thaw in China-U.S. relations gives him an opening to advance largely stalled China-South Korea ties, a perspective put forth by South Korean analysts. In particular, Seoul is keen to lock in a commitment to resume the once-annual trilateral summit between the leaders of China, Japan, and South Korea, as it’s South Korea’s turn to host the event.
While North Korea didn’t merit a mention in either the U.S. or Chinese readouts of the Biden-Xi summit, China remains a key player in strategies for addressing Pyongyang. Oh, who is also senior adviser and senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, noted that China’s position on “North Korea nuclear threats has significant policy implications for both the United States and South Korea, specifically given the increasing military ties between North Korea and Russia.”
“Which position that China would take will have significant implications for the national security of the United States and South Korea respectively,” Oh continued. “The Yoon and Biden administrations are seemingly aligned with in terms of shaping its strategy to deal with China’s stance.”
Taiwan is the most complex case, as it both has the most at stake and was a topic of discussion – without being in the room. Taiwan continues to be the number one issue for China when it considers the Sino-U.S. relationship, and Xi devoted time in the meeting to “elaborate” on China’s position.
“The U.S. side should take real actions to honor its commitment of not supporting ‘Taiwan independence,’ stop arming Taiwan, and support China’s peaceful reunification,” Xi told Biden, according to the Chinese readout.
“China will realize reunification, and this is unstoppable.”
The extent to which Biden pushed back on that assertion is unknown. According to Biden’s own account, he didn’t engage on the issue much beyond affirming the United States’ longstanding “One China policy.”
“I reiterate[d] what I’ve said since I’ve become president and what every previous president of late has said… we maintain an agreement that there is a One China policy and that – and I’m not going to change that,” Biden told reporters. “And so, that’s about the extent to which we discussed it.”
The official White House readout had more details:
[Biden] reiterated that the United States opposes any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side, that we expect cross-strait differences to be resolved by peaceful means, and that the world has an interest in peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. He called for restraint in the PRC’s use of military activity in and around the Taiwan Strait.
The Chinese readout claimed Biden also promised not to support Taiwan independence, a point that did not appear in the White House version (but has been officially U.S. policy for decades).
Overall, it sounds like both sides simply restated their positions on Taiwan, without much actual dialogue.
A spokesperson for Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the ministry “appreciates and welcomes that President Biden has again publicly underlined the United States’ firm position on the maintenance of cross-strait peace and stability through a meeting with the Chinese leader.” The spokesperson added that “the Biden administration has emphasized its rock-solid security commitment to Taiwan on multiple occasions and expressed its unwavering support for Taiwan through concrete actions.”
In other words, Taiwan is not reading too much into the Biden-Xi summit.
“Taipei is obviously paying close attention to the evolving relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, but any unease that would have been present maybe 10 years ago is not present for this summit,” said Russell Hsiao, executive director of the DC-based Global Taiwan Institute.
“While there may have been more concerns in past summits about the possibility of a grand bargain between Washington and Beijing, those concerns are far less pronounced at present,” Hsiao continued. A “grand bargain” refers to the idea, previously raised by a minority of U.S. analysts, that the United States should “abandon” Taiwan in exchange for concessions from China on other issues.
That idea is no longer a pressing fear, Hsiao argued, “given both the reassurances provided to Taipei by Washington by successive US administrations, increased trust between Washington and Taipei over recent years, as well as the structural shifts in the U.S.-China relationship that are unlikely to change as a result of this meeting.”