US-China: Modest progress – no fundamental change

Xi Jinping and Joe Biden meet in person before the G20 summit (Imago)


On Monday, 14 November 2022, China’s President Xi Jinping met with US President Joe Biden on the margins of the 17th G20 summit in Bali – the first in-person meeting for the leaders of the world’s two most powerful nations since Biden became President.


Substantive talks in a “candid” atmosphere

The meeting, initially scheduled for two hours, eventually lasted more than three hours, and, according to subsequent readouts from both sides, was held in a “candid” atmosphere. In a testament to the meeting’s significance, it was interpreted simultaneously to allow for more time to cover bilateral and multilateral areas of concern as broadly as possible.


In their first offline meeting as presidents, both Biden and Xi showed a clear intent to decelerate the downward spiral in the bilateral relationship. While Biden vowed that the US will “continue to compete vigorously with the PRC”, he emphasized that the competition should “not veer into conflict” and that both “must manage the competition responsibly”. Xi likewise remarked that current US-China relations do not “meet the expectations of the international community” and that both countries need to show “a responsible attitude toward history, the world and the people”.


In order to stabilize this consequential relationship, the two sides agreed to establish principles to guide US-China relations going forward. According to the Chinese readout, diplomatic teams from both sides will “maintain strategic communication and regular consultations” on an agenda featuring areas of cooperation which range from COP27 to public health, agriculture, food security and economic and trade matters. Finally, people-to-people communications will also be resumed.


Ukraine and Taiwan at top of the agenda

Besides economic issues, on which Biden raised “concerns about China’s non-market economic practices”, the two leaders also touched upon issues including North Korea and human rights. Crucially in the current context, they exchanged views on two of the most contentious issues in their current bilateral relations: China’s position in the Ukraine conflict and the situation in the Taiwan Strait.


Regarding the war in Ukraine, the White House emphasized that the two leaders had “reiterated their agreement that a nuclear war should never be fought and can never be won and underscored their opposition to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine”. While the Chinese readout made no mention of the possible use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, Foreign Minister (FM) Wang Yi later confirmed the agreement on the use of nuclear weapons. Xi had made similar remarks a few days earlier to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz – a first sign of criticism vis-à-vis Moscow.


On the question of Taiwan, Xi made clear Beijing’s discontent with what it sees as attempts to deviate from the “status quo” in the Strait. Emphasizing the importance of the issue for Beijing, he told Biden that the island was at the “very core of China’s core interests” and that the issue was “the first red line that must not be crossed in China-US relations”. These are new expressions compared to previous summits, where Xi merely reiterated that the ‘One China principle’ is the political foundation of the Sino-US relationship. Xi further stated that “’Taiwanese independence’ was as incompatible to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait as ‘fire and water’”. Biden emphasized that the US had not changed its ‘one China’ policy, but in the face of multiple US statements promising support for the island in the case of an attack, China exhibited a desire to see actions that match these words.


Xi further made clear that the CCP rule and the primacy of the Chinese socialist system are two other red lines of the Sino-US relationship. Under the Trump administration, regime change and attempts to drive a wedge between the CCP and the ordinary people surfaced – reminding China’s leaders of the colour revolution and democracy movements of the ‘Arab Spring’.


A “new starting point” – not much more

Overall, the positive statements circulating in the aftermath of this widely anticipated meeting show that a further deterioration of bilateral relations is clearly not in both parties’ interest.


A first sign of actual progress will be the resumption of more regular communication. In August, Beijing had suspended climate talks and a broad range of law-enforcement cooperation with the US in response to a visit to Taiwan by US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, also cancelling certain military dialogues. It is expected that following Secretary Blinken’s upcoming visit to Beijing, agreed on during the meeting, certain lines of communication will be restored.


This “new normal” – or, in the words of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, this “new starting point” – based on more managed competition, is certainly what the world wants and needs, but does not alter the underlying strategic and structural issues. Nevertheless, they may provide the basis for more constructive bilateral and multilateral engagement, at least until 2024.


The ability of the two leaders to collaboratively re-evaluate the bilateral relationship also results from the fact that both have just emerged from respective domestic elections in a position of strength, allowing for more flexibility in their respective foreign policy agendas.