By Harsh V. Pant
The much-anticipated meeting between United States (US) President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping will happen this week in the San Francisco Bay Area on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.
Ties between Washington and Beijing have been on a downward trajectory in recent years. A growing consensus about China as the most serious challenger has become the hallmark of American foreign policy thinking. Biden continued with the Trump administration’s approach vis-a-vis China and, in fact, has doubled down in challenging Beijing across a whole range of issues. It is precisely this downward spiral that the two leaders will be hoping to contain as they sit down for face-to-face talks.
The Biden Administration’s diplomatic mettle is being tested by multiple global crises from the Ukraine war to the Israel-Hamas conflict in West Asia. There is neither any bandwidth nor any appetite for the opening of another front though the volatility in the Indo-Pacific is pointing to a potential crisis brewing there. Amidst this growing global disorder, an overstretched Washington is seemingly keen to bring some stability to its ties with China, which has been challenging the US in every theatre – be it siding with Russia in its war against Ukraine or lending its full weight to the Palestinian cause. From the climate crisis to trade talks, there are multiple issues where the US has struggled to get China on board with its global objectives.
Beijing, meanwhile, has been upping the ante on the Taiwan issue and the South China Sea, challenging the US and its close allies. The restrictions imposed by the Biden Administration on the export of advanced technology to China are viewed by Beijing as explicit measures being taken to contain China’s rise, especially when the Chinese economy is under stress. So, Beijing too seems to have an incentive to seek some stabilisation in its ties with the US. As Chinese vice president Han Zheng recently underlined as a message to American interlocutors: “We (China) are ready to strengthen the communication and dialogue with the United States at all levels, promote mutually beneficial cooperation, properly manage differences, and jointly address global challenges.”
The concrete deliverables from the meeting are likely to be fairly limited. It might lead to a resumption of high-level military-to-military dialogue, which was cut off by China after the then House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, visited Taiwan in August 2022. Biden would also seek Xi’s help in restricting the flow of Chinese-made fentanyl to the US as well as to exert influence on Iran to prevent the conflict in West Asia from escalating. For Xi, Taiwan will be at the top of the agenda as it would be seeking reassurances from Biden that American policy toward Taiwan would remain unchanged.
The distrust between the two nations is a function of the underlying structural change in the global balance of power and there is a reason, therefore, why the US has been viewing the relationship through the lens of “competition”. America’s partners and allies will also be watching this meeting closely and some have already been trying to stabilise their ties with Beijing. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese visited China earlier this month, the first Australian leader to visit China in seven years, arguing that it is in the interest of both Australia and China “to have a relationship where there is dialogue”. Japan and South Korea have also agreed to revive three-way talks with China after a four-year hiatus. Clearly, these nations are trying to find a new balance in their ties with China as the regional and global order undergoes a systemic transformation.
For New Delhi too, the stakes are high in this re-ordering of the regional matrix. The India-US 2+2 dialogue last week has underlined the organic strength of this engagement, which aims towards “building a forward-looking partnership while we (India and the US) construct a shared global agenda”. Given the criticality of this partnership for ensuring a free, open and rules-based Indo-Pacific region, India will be keenly watching the Biden-Xi meeting.
About the author: Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations with King’s India Institute at King’s College London. He is also Director (Honorary) of Delhi School of Transnational Affairs at Delhi University.