The meeting between Presidents Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Xi Jinping on November 15 was extraordinarily important for world peace and the world economy given the frayed relationship between the two countries—the two largest economies, the two largest trading nations, and the two that rank number one and two in military spending. They, more often than not, have opposing interests and are locked in a vigorous, hard-edged strategic competition.
As President Biden expressed before departing to Asia, the purpose of the meeting was to discuss “what each of our red lines are” and determine whether the two countries’ critical interests “conflict with one another,” and where they do, “how to resolve it and how to work it out.”
To the press, after the meeting, President Biden gave the clear impression that while no US or Chinese policies changed during the meeting, there was clarity on both sides with respect to the positions of the other. Moreover, bilateral channels of communication were immediately reopened. On the other side of the world, in Egypt at the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27), the chief climate representatives of the United States and China resumed meeting with each other.
For all the hope of a better relationship, however, most of the causes of the tension have remained. China will maintain its core interest in regaining Taiwan. The United States is maintaining its “One-China” policy but continues to oppose the use of force to annex Taiwan. China also said nothing about changing its rhetorical support of Russia in its war in Ukraine, nor promise not to give material support.
The strategic competition between China and the United States continues. The United States did not say it would roll back either high-tech export restrictions or tariffs on imports from China. The United States will remain evangelistic in its promotion of democracy and human rights. China will seek to be the dominant regional power and spread its influence eastward across Asia to Eastern Europe and the global south. China’s leadership did not suggest that it would moderate its nationalistic tone in its communications with its people, portraying the United States as a threat.
The US-led AUKUS (the trilateral security pact among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, announced on September 15, 2021), the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD, commonly known as the Quad, a strategic security dialogue consisting of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States), and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) will continue to be deployed as counterweights to Chinese expansion. The negative view of China among the American people, Congress, and the Biden administration will not likely diminish in the near term and may be heightened in the incoming, more narrowly divided, Congress.
Perhaps most important for the global economy, economic exchanges between the two countries will continue, still at an all-time high, although the increase in bilateral trade seen in recent years is likely to diminish, as the policies of each of the two countries favor reducing dependency on the other. (China is the largest source of US goods imports, reaching a peak of $0.5 trillion in value just before the onset of the pandemic, and running at a rate this year that is 10 percent above pre-pandemic levels.) That said, supply chains are in the process of diversifying, but the deep relationships with Chinese sources of supply cannot disappear overnight without enormous disruption, and some raw materials and intermediate products will not be easy to source elsewhere. In addition, were complete decoupling to be attempted, cooperation where mutual interests align would be difficult if not impossible.
The risks of escalation of these conflicts will remain. Confrontations can readily occur in shipping lanes, over militarization of outposts in the South and East China Seas, over China’s failure to rein in North Korea, over the Taiwan Strait, and over trade restrictions.
In the wake of the spirit of Bali, is détente possible?
The United States and China face common threats: the destabilizing behavior of North Korea or Russia, climate change, future pandemics or financial crises, and global food insecurity. President Biden is pragmatic and open to improving the bilateral relationship, to make it more stable, while respecting US national security and industrial interests. His approach to any problem is to work toward solutions, not foreclose the effort.
Miscalculations between countries have led to calamities in international relations all too often. The Bali Summit created the promise of opening bilateral channels of communication. Both sides should utilize these channels fully to avoid needless confrontations.