US, China strike tactical truce for stability but don’t concede on key issues

Posted on : 2023-11-17 16:46 KST Modified on : 2023-11-17 17:00 KST
With Biden facing an upcoming election and Xi dealing with economic troubles at home, the two world leaders signaled an intent to seek stability in their ongoing rivalry
Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden sit down for a summit at the Filoli estate near San Francisco, California, on Nov. 15. (Reuters/Yonhap)
Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden sit down for a summit at the Filoli estate near San Francisco, California, on Nov. 15. (Reuters/Yonhap)

“I think it’s paramount that you and I understand each other clearly, leader to leader, with no misconceptions or miscommunication. We have to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict. And we also have to manage it responsibly — that competition.”

“The China-US relationship, which is the most important bilateral relationship in the world, should be perceived and envisioned in a broad context of the accelerating global transformations unseen in a century. It should benefit in a way that benefits our two peoples and fulfills our responsibility for human progress.”

Meeting for the first time in about a year, the leaders of the US and China emphasized the importance of communication and the responsibility the two countries have as two of the most powerful nations leading the world. While noting that they “haven’t always agreed,” Biden described his meetings with Xi to have always been “candid, straightforward, and useful.”

In response, Xi underscored longstanding ties between Beijing and Washington, remarking, “China-US relationship has never been smooth sailing over the past 50 years and more, and it always faces problems of one kind or another. Yet, it has kept moving forward amid twists and turns.”

With the two leaders agreeing to work towards “stability” by going so far as to mention their personal relationship in regard to strategic competition between the US and China, which has serious ramifications for the world order, the two sides appear to be putting the brakes on their conflict for now.

The main takeaway from Wednesday’s summit is that the US and China agreed to make efforts and communicate with responsibility in order to prevent themselves from coming head-to-head. Subsequently, the military communication channel between the two that was cut off immediately following then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022 was restored, and Washington and Beijing agreed to work together in areas where bilateral cooperation is needed, such as AI, climate, and counternarcotics by creating working groups.

However, regarding two key issues in their strategic competition, the Taiwan issue and the issue of supply chain reorganization in high-tech fields such as semiconductors, the two countries merely confirmed their divergent views without coming to a consensus. In the end, US-China bilateral relations simply returned to how they had been prior to going downhill after the Pelosi incident.

Of course, this is no small win. Ever since taking office in January 2021, Biden has been escalating US strategic competition with China by stressing that humanity is at an inflection point between democracy and authoritarianism. Under Biden, the US adopted a barrage of policies in order to win its competition with China, restricting chip exports to China and limiting investments to the country.

In terms of security, the crisis in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea intensified, and the fracture in US-China relations deepened due to the spy balloon incident. Biden and Xi hadn’t talked on the phone since their in-person meeting one year ago in Bali. But now, countries like South Korea sandwiched between two powerful nations may breathe easier thanks to the face-to-face promise the two leaders made to stabilize their countries’ relations.

The US meticulously picked out the site of the summit in order to ensure its success. Located 25 kilometers south of San Francisco, the Filoli estate is a residence built by gold miners roughly 100 years ago. Managed as a historic heritage site, the estate is home to a 56-room structure and a large garden. Although Biden and Xi’s meeting was occasioned by the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit with 21 participating countries, the US took great pains to treat Xi with respect, emphasizing that the summit was a separate occasion with great importance. The expanded meeting the two leaders held accompanied by 12 advisors each, as well as their luncheon, demonstrates this point as well.

The most likely reason the US and China are calling a “tactical ceasefire” is because they both face significant challenges domestically and internationally. With one year to go until the US presidential election, Biden is indirectly involved in two wars including the one in Ukraine and the one between Israel and Hamas. If a clash occurs in the Taiwan Strait or China palpably draws closer to Russian and Iran on top of these challenges, the US may get a taste of significant strategic failure. This urgency is motivating the US to “manage” its relations with China at least until next year’s presidential election in November, the analysis goes.

The situation is not that different for Xi, who was confirmed for his third consecutive term last year. Despite the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese economy has been slow to recover while the real estate market is stagnating and youth unemployment is skyrocketing to the point it could not be made public. With US pressure in the form of export and investment restrictions characterized as “de-risking” growing stronger, China’s isolation in high-tech industries like the semiconductor field is intensifying. Beijing also has to lessen the effect of the US-led encirclement strategy of bolstering security cooperation among South Korea, the US and Japan.

While the US and China agreed on a truce, their fundamental discontent regarding each other has not subsided. On the one hand, Xi pointed out that “US actions against China regarding export control, investment screening and unilateral sanctions seriously hurt China’s legitimate interests.” On the other, the US is not putting its guard down regarding the possibility of Chinese interference in the Taiwanese presidential election scheduled for January. Ultimately, conflict between the US and China can deepen at any time unless agreements are reached on key issues.

By Lee Bon-young, Washington correspondent; Choi Hyun-june, Beijing correspondent

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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