Biden and Xi try to stabilize collapsing US-China relations in first meeting

When Joe Biden and Xi Jinping meet in Bali on Monday, it will be the biggest test yet of whether the two leaders can reverse what has been a dramatic decline in US-China relations.

After four difficult years under Donald Trump, China was hoping Biden would ease the turbulence. But relations they have plummeted to their lowest point since the countries normalized relations in 1979 by forging a new path against a common rival in the Soviet Union.

“More than four decades later, in the absence of a similar common strategic rival, growing competition and an intensifying set of technological, ideological and security differences are overwhelming the relationship and risk driving the US and China to a long and icy course.” said Paul Haenle of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who was China adviser to George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

The United States is concerned about issues including China’s military activity around Taiwan, its rapidly expanding nuclear arsenal and its refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Beijing accuses the US of emboldening pro-independence forces in Taiwan, creating quasi-alliances like the “Quad” to counter China, and trying to contain China with advanced chip-related technology. export controls.

Biden said that leaders he would draw his “red lines” to see if there was room to resolve the differences. The two men have spoken five times since Biden became president, but the efforts have been largely unsuccessful. US officials hope their first in-person meeting as leaders will change that.

“There is simply no substitute for this type of leader-to-leader communication to navigate and manage such an important relationship,” said Jake Sullivan, national security adviser.

However, the obstacles remain high. US officials say Xi has not followed through on his comments to Biden a year ago that China would engage in nuclear weapons talks. It is also hard to imagine how the two sides could reach a compromise on Taiwan, which has become the most contentious issue in US-China relations.

Asked this week if he intended to tell Xi that the United States would defend Taiwan against an unprovoked attack from China, a statement he has made four times, Biden said, “I’m going to have that conversation with him.”

Evan Medeiros, a China expert at Georgetown University, said Biden wanted to stabilize relations and, in particular, “prevent a downward spiral” over Taiwan. He said Biden would try to reassure Xi that he was not changing the “One China” policy, under which the United States recognizes Beijing as the sole government of China but acknowledges, without endorsing, China’s position that Taiwan is part of China. China.

But Medeiros warned that the deep animosity between the two countries reduces the chances of success. “This summit will not rescue or redefine relations. At best, it can slow deterioration.”

Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund, said Beijing had signaled that it did not want relations to worsen.

“Perhaps that has given Biden hope that given our language about wanting to put a floor on this relationship, our goals overlap,” he said. “Then maybe we can make progress. But there is also a real possibility that this meeting will have results that are quite similar to previous meetings.”

A Chinese diplomat said there was a chance the meeting would help relations because “both sides are making an effort” and some problems could be resolved. He said that China hoped that the United States would issue overdue visas for Chinese students and that Beijing could make it easier for foreign academics and businessmen to visit China.

Chinese analysts said some exchanges between officials, which Beijing halted after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August, could resume.

“China doesn’t want a new cold war, but we have many requests for the United States,” said Zhu Feng, an international relations expert at Nanjing University.

But beyond a few fruits at hand, Chinese experts were deeply pessimistic. “In the past, economic and security issues were separate pillars in the bilateral relationship,” said Wu Xinbo, dean of Fudan University’s Institute of International Studies, who said economic issues were now subordinate to political and political concerns. of security.

Dennis Wilder, a former CIA senior China analyst who now works at Georgetown University, said Biden had “overdone” in terms of balancing China and needed to step up efforts to push for engagement.

“I’m not saying they haven’t done good things, like Aukus [the US, UK and Australia defence pact], strengthening relations with Japan and South Korea and with the Pacific countries,” Wilder said. “But you have to commit to balance. Otherwise, you’re only headed down a path to mutually assured destruction.”

Wang Chong, a US expert at Zhejiang University of International Studies, said the meeting could help stabilize ties, following the US midterm elections and Xi securing a third presidential term. five years as leader of the Chinese Communist Party.

“The Chinese party congress and the US midterm elections are over. Both countries have more certainty about domestic affairs. A meeting would have a positive effect in easing tensions,” Wong said.

While Democrats fared better than expected in the midterm elections, Republicans are likely to take control of the House, giving more power to Republican lawmakers who want Washington to get tougher on China. It is also unclear whether Xi is confident that Biden has the ability to de-escalate tensions, even if that is his goal.

“The Chinese do not see Biden as an extremely strong president. They think he is too worried about the Republicans and that they see him as soft on China,” said an expert on the United States and China.

“There is also no certainty that he will be in power for more than two years, so it is a question mark whether Beijing will continue to invest in him.”

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