AFTER dithering for several weeks, China’s President Xi Jinping agreed to a summit meeting with US President Joe Biden in San Francisco on November 15. They held a dialogue on several issues which the US was pushing for, such as resuming communication between the militaries, climate change, arms control and nuclear non-proliferation. This sudden change in China’s position was the outcome of a shift in its economic power (vis-a-vis the US) in recent months. As per a study, China’s GDP, which was about 75 per cent of the US’s in 2021, declined to about 64 per cent in the third quarter of 2023 due to mounting local government debt, a housing bubble, declining foreign trade and lesser confidence in its economy.
In his discussions with Biden, Xi complained that the US implementation of the export control measures (e.g. sanctions on the export of semiconductors, microchips), investment reviews and tariffs had harmed China’s legitimate interests, including its economic development. He hoped that the US would take its concerns seriously, lift those sanctions and provide a fair, just and non-discriminatory environment for Chinese enterprises. Xi tried to placate Biden by saying that China had no plans to “surpass or replace the US” (as the dominant global power) and the US should drop the idea of competition with China.
Biden rejected Xi’s insinuations, saying that the US and China were in competition, that the US would invest in American strengths and prevent China’s use of advanced US technologies to undermine its national security. He raised concerns about China’s unfair trade policies, non-market economic practices and punitive action against US companies.
The second issue of interest to Xi, as expected, was Taiwan. Xi asked Biden “to implement its stance of not supporting Taiwan’s independence through concrete actions, stop arming Taiwan and support China’s peaceful reunification”. Biden reiterated that there had been no change in the US position. The US has opposed unilateral changes to the status quo on either side. It expects cross-strait differences to be resolved by peaceful means. Biden called for restraint in China’s military activity in and around the Taiwan Strait and asked Beijing not to interfere in Taiwan’s presidential elections in January 2024.
Biden reiterated US support for a “free and open Indo-Pacific (IP) which is connected, prosperous, secure and resilient” and its “ironclad commitment to defending our IP allies” (important in context of the China-Philippines confrontation to defend the latter’s resupply to the Second Thomas Shoal). Biden also raised concerns about alleged human rights abuse by China, including in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong.
Among the summit’s achievements were the resumption of high-level military-to-military communication, the US-China Defence Policy Coordination talks and the US-China Military Maritime Consultative Agreement meetings. The two countries agreed to the resumption of bilateral cooperation to combat global illicit drug manufacturing, trafficking, including of synthetic drugs like fentanyl, and coordination on narcotics issues. They welcomed the progress on national actions to reduce emissions in the 2020s and operationalising the working group on enhancing climate actions.
Both sides agreed on further discussions to address various global challenges, including health, security, debt and climate finance in developing countries, arms control and non-proliferation and economic, commercial and financial cooperation. They expressed commitment to increase scheduled passenger flights and encourage expansion of educational, cultural, sports and business exchanges.
The most important outcome of the summit was a ‘candid and in-depth’ exchange of views between the leaders on the “strategic, overarching and directional issues” in their bilateral relationship. China knew very well that the US would not change its position on any of the critical issues between them. It is Beijing’s hope that after this meeting, the US may delay the imposition of more sanctions on the export of technologies and allow American companies to make more investments and do greater trade with China.
Similarly, the US is hoping that China will be less confrontational in countering US military aircraft and warships participating in the freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, Taiwan Strait and international airspace. Also, if some incident takes place, the political leadership and the militaries of the two countries would be able to establish quick communication to avoid a conflict. With the US already involved to some extent in wars in Ukraine and West Asia, it does not want a conflict with China. Greater transparency and dialogue on critical technologies like artificial intelligence, arms control and nuclear non-proliferation would also be mutually useful.
Though the summit helped in reducing tensions in the bilateral relations, there was no agreement on reducing the underpinning differences, which are the casus belli for the eruption of periodic tensions between them. These include China’s desire to displace the US from the global number one position, reshape the existing international order to its liking and force the US to exit Asia in the future. China will continue to supply weapons to Ukraine and threaten US allies and partners whenever it deems necessary; the US would be obliged to come to their assistance in pursuance of its treaty obligations.
Similarly, the US is equally determined to weaken China, deny investments and technologies in sensitive fields, maintain tariffs on sensitive imports and undermine her global standing with the help of its allies. The differences over Taiwan are equally unbridgeable as the US and its allies do not want it to be annexed by China; they will continue to arm Taiwan to obviate that possibility. The fragile relations between the US and China could be tested anytime in case of provocation by various actors as the US and Taiwan go for the presidential elections and China’s economy witnesses greater strain in 2024.
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