China and the US take tiny steps towards détente

There are some gains from the long meeting held by the two leaders

Shahid Javed Burki November 20, 2023
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank


Presidents Jo Biden and Xi Jinping met in San Francisco on Wednesday, November 15, on the sidelines of the summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. The meeting was held in a house near the campus of Stanford University. This was the second one-on-one meeting between the two leaders since President Xi consolidated his rule over China. The earlier meeting was in Bali, Indonesia in November 2022. Since that meeting Xi secured an unprecedented third term, ignoring the standard established by Deng Xiaoping when the latter succeeded Mao Zedong. Deng didn’t want the Chinese leaders to stay in power for more than two successive terms. This principle was followed by Deng’s successors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao but Xi defied it. He managed to get the third term as the Chairman of the Party and President of the country and also the head of the military. Despite his control of the Chinese Communist Party, some China-watchers believe that Xi has been weakened both by domestic and foreign developments.

According to Minxin Pei, a Chinese-American scholar who focuses on China-US relations at Claremont McKenna College, on the United States west coast, “Xi needs the summit more than Biden does. He’s definitely in a worse position than in November of last year — he is now in the most challenging moment yet of his tenure.” While his “zero-Covid approach to the management of the pandemic worked, the measures adopted weekend the country’s economy,” Pei wrote. This means that China may not meet its growth target of 5 per cent in 2023, already the lowest in three decades.

“It’s literally been one disaster after another,” said Evan Medeiros, a professor at Georgetown University who served as a national security official in the administration headed by President Barack Obama. Xi’s third term, which began in March 2023, “has been full of policy failures and challenges”. There have been several unexplained departures of senior people from Xi’s inner circle. However, the death of Li Keqiang, former Chinese premier, an economist and a free market advocate, prompted an outpouring of grief that was viewed by China-watchers as an implicit rebuttal of the more state-driven and ideological path Xi had adopted. In the days after Li’s death, Chinese media outlets were instructed to limit “very effusive praise” of the departed leader. “Praising Li Keqiang for caring about the people and telling the truth implies that Xi doesn’t care about the people and speaks only empty words,” said Zhang Lun, professor of Chinese studies at University de Cergy-Pontoise in Paris. “Discontent with Xi used to be concentrated at the top, but bit by bit it has reached the level of public. This is the situation that Xi Jinping faces today. The loathing of him has reached a critical point,” said the professor.

One way of dealing with the worsening domestic situation is to divert the attention of the people towards the world outside, in particular to relations with the United States. Under both Trump and Biden, the United States had taken several steps to slow down China’s economic march, in particular depriving it of the means to employ technological constraints to move the country forward. Would this work for Xi? “When you face these kinds of challenges, in the past the reaction wasn’t we need to change the top leader. It’s that we need to rally to the top leaders even more,” said Joseph Torigan, a China historian at American University.

The summit with President Biden was meant to reduce the pressure America had begun to exert on China. It followed discussions between several senior Chinese and American leaders. Secretary of State Athony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen went to China and, according to their accounts, were able to engage the Chinese side in productive exchanges. In an article titled “The U.S. can compete with China — and work with China”, published in The Washington Post on November 7, 2023, Yellen wrote, “President Biden and I have been clear-eyed abut navigating the complexities of the U.S.-China relationship with a pragmatic economic strategy: one that protects our vital national security interests while seeking a stable and healthy economic relationship.”

There were some gains from the long meeting held by the two leaders on November 15. One agreement reestablished key military channels more than a year after they were severed when Beijing was angry at the visit to Taiwan of Nancy Policy, the then Speaker of the US House. Biden and Xi also agreed to strengthen counternarcotics cooperation, in the hope of reducing United States’ fentanyl crisis which had resulted in the deaths of thousands of young people who had become addicted to the drug. Though modest in their reach, the two agreements were a rare sign of cooperation between the world’s two superpowers. “Miscalculations on either side can cause real, real trouble with a country like China or any other major country,” Biden said at a news conference held after the meeting with Xi. “He and I agreed that each one of us could pick up the phone call directly, would be heard immediately.”

Biden then went on to speak about Xi, the person. “I think I know the man. I know his modus operandi. We have disagreements. He has a different view than I have on a lot of things,” Biden explained. “But he has been straight. I don’t mean good, bad or indifferent — just been straight.” On his part, Xi also talked about the relationship with the other superpower. The “China-U.S. relationship has never been smooth sailing over the last 50 years, turning their back on each other is not an option. As long as they respect each other, they can coexist in peace, they will be fully capable of rising above differences.”

The United States and China also agreed to restart climate talks after a year-long pause. It was the agreement on global warming issues between the two countries that led to the passage of the Paris Climate Accord in 2015. Xi also spoke warmly of his meeting with the American president. He called US-China ties the most important bilateral relationship in the world. “Planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed,” Xi told the press.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 20th, 2023.

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