To address growing tensions between the United States and China, particularly over Taiwan, President Joe Biden and General Secretary Xi Jinping met virtually on Monday night (Tuesday morning in Beijing) for a three-hour discussion that covered a wide array of contentious issues. Both sides downplayed expectations for the session beforehand and have been relatively subdued albeit somewhat positive in their respective post-meeting statements and spins. Less formal than a summit and more structured than a sidebar, what if anything did the extended virtual top-level bilateral discussion achieve?
In assessing the results of the Biden-Xi meeting, it may be useful to consider how much was accomplished in three areas and provide some historical perspective. This assessment is necessarily preliminary because it is based upon publicly available knowledge which at this time is incomplete — namely what each side has chosen to say in front of the cameras and include in official statements in the immediate aftermath of the meeting.
Did the two leaders conduct a temperature check? In other words, did they frankly and directly address the chill in bilateral relations and take a moment to assess the current climate of heightened tensions in U.S.-China relations? The answer seems to be yes.
According to readouts from both sides, the two leaders acknowledged that bilateral ties are in a bad place. Unlike the public exchange in front of the cameras at the meeting in Anchorage, neither leader used their public opening remarks to make light of the abysmal state of U.S.-China relations or engage in finger pointing or melodrama. Agreement on precisely how bad things are — a bilateral temperature check — is an important prerequisite for Washington and Beijing to hold the prospect of making even a modicum of progress on the one hand and mitigating the dangers of unintended escalation to military conflict on the other.
Were Biden and Xi able to frame U.S.-China relations and signal their intent to chart a more positive course? The answer here also seems to be yes.
The two leaders indicated a desire to arrest the downward spiral in bilateral ties and work to manage contentious disputes. Virtual events can be challenging — it is harder to read body language and impossible to engage in sidebar conversations pre- and post-meeting when two leaders are not sitting in the same room. Fortunately, Biden and Xi had met in person on multiple occasions during the Obama administration and so did not come into their meeting cold. Biden referred to their history of personal interactions and Xi called Biden an “old friend.” No one should read too much into the personal history between the two leaders — it will not guarantee a brighter future for U.S.-China relations nor ensure any new agreements on any of the contentious issues bedeviling the two countries. However, these earlier interactions decrease the likelihood of miscommunications or misunderstandings emerging out of the three-hour meeting.
Did the two leaders set an agenda and compile a to-do list? The meeting yielded no joint statement neither were any formal agreements announced. Yet, the absence of such manifestations does not mean that no plans were made.
Joint statements are often full of platitudes and formal agreements can go unfulfilled. It is possible — indeed probable — that at least some basic agreements were made to pursue priority issues. The fact that the session continued for well over three hours suggests that there was at a minimum readiness to continue discussions on some pressing issues at the working level. The transcript of PRC Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng’s press interview described the meeting as “candid, in-depth, constructive, and fruitful.” He highlighted areas for potential bilateral cooperation consistent with General Secretary Xi’s comment in his opening remarks that the United States and China can use “dialogue channels and institutional platforms” to “promote practical cooperation and solve specific problems.”
The U.S. side was less sanguine in tone. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan indicated that there would be an “intensification of engagement,” which would include agreement by the two leaders to “begin to carry forward discussion on strategic stability.” The White House press readout mentioned areas where the two sides’ “interests intersect.” Establishing “guardrails” for bilateral competition was a goal articulated by both sides.
Historically, meetings between top leaders of the two countries have periodically served as opportunities to reset the bilateral relationship. In some instances, these meetings have marked fundamental changes to the nature of the relationship, such as the 1972 visit by Richard Nixon to Mao Zedong-led China and the 1979 visit by Deng Xiaoping to the United States that followed the decision by the Jimmy Carter administration to proceed with normalization of diplomatic ties.
However, many top-level bilateral meetings, like the session between Biden and Xi, have been aimed at building a more solid foundation for the relationship going forward. For example, after bilateral relations collapsed after Tiananmen in 1989, Bill Clinton met with Jiang Zemin early in his presidency to “begin a dialogue.” During the second Barack Obama administration, the president met with his counterpart with an agenda positively framed to emphasize cooperation but principally aimed at stabilizing a rapidly deteriorating relationship.
Monday’s meeting between Biden and Xi falls somewhere in the middle. The leaders acknowledged that fundamental change in the relationship has been underway for the last decade, but also sought ways to manage the tensions. Like similar meetings over the last five decades, the two countries’ leaders identified Taiwan, human rights and trade as persistent sources of bilateral tensions and suspicion that require careful management. At the same time, they identified areas that could help stabilize the relationship. Building off the joint announcement last week that the two countries had reached agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions, the Chinese press reported that the leaders agreed to accept more journalists from each other’s countries, and the U.S. side announced that they also agreed to have their senior officials work together to find practical and tangible ways to reduce friction, avoid conflict and pursue shared goals.
Monitoring the Aftermath
In the lead up to Monday’s meeting, both Beijing and Washington worked hard to manage expectations about potential outcomes from the discussion. In the immediate aftermath of the meeting, we can expect that both sides will continue to insist this was a small but necessary step in building a firmer footing for the relationship going forward. Only time will tell how successful this session was in preventing further deterioration in bilateral ties, but Monday’s meeting made clear that leaders in both countries recognize that the failure to do so has grave consequences for themselves and for the world.