Editor’s note: It has been confirmed that Joe Biden and Xi Jinping will meet on November 14.
PProspects Before the impromptu meeting between US President Lyndon Johnson and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin in 1967, the detente of the Cold War looked bleak. The leaders of the superpowers have not met since 1961, when the Kennedy-Khrushchev summit in Vienna ended bitterly in 2017. Five days after Kosygin arrived in New York to address the United Nations, Soviet and American officials were still debating when and where he could meet Johnson privately. One White House adviser puts the chance of the gathering improving relations at only 20 percent.
If applied to the expected meeting between current U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, those odds seem strong. GThe G20 summit was held in Bali on November 15-16. As the two sides try to thrash out details of their leaders’ first face-to-face encounter since Mr Biden’s election, both are signaling that they want to halt a worsening of relations that increasingly echoes the cold war. Having a meeting in Bali is a step forward in itself. But domestic politics on both sides limited prospects for the kind of stabilization mechanism that supported Soviet-American détente in the 1970s.
If the meeting goes ahead, Mr. Biden is likely to attend it, as he loses control of the House of Representatives in the Nov. 8 midterm elections (because economist At the time of going to press, it was even less clear which party would control the Senate). That’s not because there isn’t a hard line on China — a rare issue of bipartisan consensus. In many respects, Biden has taken a tougher line on China than his Republican predecessor, severely restricting exports of U.S. technology to China and repeatedly pledging to defend Taiwan, the self-governing island China seeks to reunite with the mainland.
Indeed, many U.S. allies, business leaders and foreign policy experts believe Mr. Biden has gone too far and expect him to try to stabilize relations. A Nov. 3 paper from the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, warned Mr. Biden against trying to outwit Republicans on China and urged him to focus on areas of long-term mutual interest. “The purpose of strategy is to advance national goals. The way the United States currently handles bilateral relations with China has failed to meet this standard,” said the paper, whose two authors worked on China policy in the Obama administration.
White House officials spoke of “finding the line” in the relationship between the two countries. They are finding new ways to avoid conflict and cooperate on issues such as climate change and food security. But they balked at Chinese demands to ease export controls and provide new assurances to Taiwan. On November 9, Biden stated that he wanted to discuss the “red line” between the two sides, but was “unwilling to make any fundamental concessions.” His reluctance stems less from election anxiety than from concern about Mr. Xi’s ambitions. Still, with the presidential election looming, the midterm results could limit Biden’s leeway while convincing Xi that he is dealing with a lame duck.
The Republican-led House could also spark a crisis beyond Mr. Biden’s control, especially if Kevin McCarthy, the likely new speaker of the House, visits Taiwan at his suggestion. After current Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited China in August, China staged massive military exercises around Taiwan and cut off high-level dialogue with the United States. Since then, Chinese warships and aircraft have repeatedly crossed the center line of the Taiwan Strait. Mr McCarthy’s visit is sure to provoke further escalation of Chinese coercive measures.
In another turning point, local elections in Taiwan on Nov. 26 could weaken the Kuomintang, a party favored by Chinese leaders for its advocacy of closer ties with the mainland. This will increase the chances of an independence-leaning candidate winning Taiwan’s 2024 presidential election.
“From a Chinese perspective, the political calendar between now and November 2024 is pretty bleak,” said Jude Blanchett of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, another Washington think tank. He wants nothing close to conflict to happen until the two sides have a frank dialogue about the relationship. For now, though, neither side appears interested in finding areas for substantive compromise.
Where is Xi standing
Compared with his American counterparts, Mr Xi traveled to Bali with a stronger political stance than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. Not only did he secure a third term at last month’s Communist Party congress, but he also installed loyalists in the new Politburo Standing Committee – the party’s top leadership body – with no one considered a potential successor. That sent a clear signal that he intends to dominate decision-making for at least another decade.
In theory, Xi now has more room to compromise. Some China experts believe that he and his emissaries have made this clear in recent public statements. On October 26, Chairman Xi sent a congratulatory message at the National Committee Gala Dinner us– US non-profit organization “China Relations” said China was ready to “find the right way to get along”. On November 2, China’s No. 3 diplomat in Washington, Quan Jing, said at a meeting that Chinese leaders had not set a timetable for attacking Taiwan and that peaceful reunification was the first priority. He added that China and the US “remain friends” bound by trade and can cooperate in many areas.
However, those signals were overshadowed by Xi Jinping’s overwhelming message in his party congress report, in which he warned of a “dangerous storm” approaching and called for accelerated military modernization and “outrageous provocations” of other countries’ interference in Taiwan ” grounds. In private conversations with their American counterparts, Chinese officials and academics have also continued to blame the U.S. for the downturn in relations, insisting that the U.S. must change course if the two sides are to cooperate in other areas.
Xi Jinping’s centralization of power and his “zero epidemic” strategy have further restricted communication channels and exacerbated structural problems in the relationship. Even retired leaders are no longer considered to have much influence over Xi, and new leaders, chosen largely for their loyalty, are less likely to advocate for a change of course. Xi’s coronavirus restrictions have also severely limited face-to-face meetings between academics, business leaders and lower-level officials from both sides.
Nor is there a Chinese comparable to Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to Washington from 1962 to 1986, who from 1971 He became a full member of the Central Committee of the Soviet Union and was a key figure in the de-escalation of the situation. Qin Gang, who has been China’s ambassador to Washington since mid-2021, has just joined the Central Committee. But he is expected to return home to serve as China’s next foreign minister. Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to Beijing, has the authority to represent Biden but has little access to Mr. Xi’s inner circle. As a result, the relationship increasingly relies on direct contact between Xi Jinping and Biden, which is difficult to arrange.
They could still make more progress than expected in Bali. When Johnson and Kosygin finally met in Glassboro, New Jersey, they had ten hours of relatively amicable talks, expressing a shared desire to protect their grandchildren from the horrors of war. There was no immediate breakthrough, and relations between the two countries suffered a setback when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. But Glassborough paved the way for summits and security agreements that cemented détente in the 1970s.
U.S. and Chinese officials have long rejected comparisons to the Cold War, fearing they could become self-fulfilling. Unlike the Soviet Union, China has deep commercial ties to the United States and does not seek a global revolution. These two great powers are not fighting a proxy war. The similarity, however, becomes all the more striking as the two sides lock into long-term plans to confront each other economically and militarily. In the absence of alternatives, the Cold War at least provided a model for managing tensions, such as the 1972 Agreement on Incidents at Sea.
Some hope that Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi will capitalize on the personal chemistry they sought to foster during a series of talks they held as vice presidents in 2011 and 2012. The worry is that neither will be willing to compromise their strategic calculations until the larger crisis shifts. A more pessimistic analogy might be the Vienna summit in 1961, when Kennedy and Khrushchev clashed over issues such as the West’s access to Berlin. The following year, the Cuban Missile Crisis pushed them to the brink of nuclear war. ■
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