With the U.S.-China relationship at its lowest point in decades, the American and Chinese leaders met this week on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Indonesia for their first face-to-face summit since Joe Biden was elected. The deteriorating bilateral relationship became particularly concerning in August when China cut key lines of communication between Washington and Beijing, including on critical military and climate issues, following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.
While the meeting between President Biden and Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping did not lead to any major agreements or close the gap on the wide range of differences between the two major powers, it did suggest that both sides want to manage the intensive strategic rivalry and avoid conflict.
USIP’s Rosie Levine, Jennifer Staats and Alex Stephenson look at key takeaways from this week’s Biden-Xi summit.
1. The return to regular diplomatic engagement is a small but significant step.
Levine and Stephenson: Biden and Xi’s first face-to-face meeting since Biden assumed office resulted in a small, but significant step toward the re-establishment of normal channels of diplomacy. The two most concrete outcomes of their discussion focused on the reinstatement of channels for diplomatic dialogue. First, the two leaders agreed that they will jointly form working groups to engage on specific issues of mutual concern, and second, Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to China to continue these discussions.
This is especially significant since it marks a departure from China’s decision to quash diplomacy and dialogue earlier this year. In August, China suspended talks and cooperation with the United States on topics ranging from military-to-military dialogue to climate change following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Linking diplomatic talks with Taiwan policy, one of the most intractable issues in the relationship, brought the already low levels of dialogue to a near halt. The Biden-Xi meeting points to a departure from this approach, and both leaders emphasized the importance of cooperating on transnational issues such as climate change, global health and food security.
Despite this step forward, differences in the English and Chinese readouts of the meeting point to issues that will continue to pose challenges as working-level discussions begin. Both sides agree that new norms need to be established in the relationship but offered different definitions of what these norms might be. The Chinese readout discussed “guardrails” and “red lines” as protective mechanisms: tools used to ensure that peace is maintained as long as Beijing’s key interests vis-à-vis Taiwan are respected. The Biden administration, meanwhile, defined guardrails as “clear rules of the road … to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict.” Each readout also outlined the litany of issues where the United States and China no longer see eye-to-eye. These range from Biden’s articulation of security concerns, non-market economic practices and human rights issues in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong to Xi’s concerns about U.S. Taiwan policy, trade policy and zero-sum competition. As teams in the Washington and Beijing are tasked with standing up the working groups, these issues will remain obstacles to productive dialogue.
Despite the differences between both countries, there appears to be a growing openness to the use of diplomacy to manage the relationship. The Biden-Xi meeting itself, organized by teams in both countries using a revived communication channel, demonstrates that mechanisms, even if infrequently used, do exist for re-engaging in dialogue.
2. Biden and Xi agree that a “nuclear war should never be fought and can never be won."
Levine and Stephenson: One outcome from the Biden-Xi summit was mutual opposition to the threat or use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. According to the U.S. readout, “President Biden and President Xi reiterated their agreement that a nuclear war should never be fought and can never be won,” echoing language from Xi’s meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz earlier this month.
The statement also stands out for being framed jointly, unlike most of the U.S. readout, which was presented as unilateral statements by Biden. Such a firm — and repeated — stance against the use of nuclear weapons by Xi is a welcome step in the right direction, especially following Putin’s veiled nuclear threats toward Ukraine.
The Chinese readout specifically highlighted two of Xi’s vague rhetorical concepts: the “four shoulds” and the more recent “four commons,” which articulate what Beijing thinks the international community must do in response to “the Ukraine issue.” In a press conference after the meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi clarified the latter, emphasizing that it included “nuclear weapons should not be used and nuclear wars should not be fought.” Notably missing from the concept, however, was any condemnation of nuclear “threats.”
Still, there was a hesitancy in Beijing’s apparent opposition. The Chinese readout did not include any explicit statement against the threat or use of nuclear weapons. It does mention that Biden and Xi exchanged views on the crisis in Ukraine, but the language was more consistent with Beijing’s ongoing efforts to support Russia without causing collateral damage to China’s own international standing.
Regarding the situation in the Korean Peninsula, Xi had even less to say. The Chinese readout didn’t include any language about North Korea or its nuclear threats, while Wang told the press that the issue should be resolved by addressing each party’s concerns, “especially the reasonable concerns of the DPRK.” Biden, meanwhile, noted that “all members of the international community have an interest in encouraging the DPRK to act responsibly,” and reiterated the United States’ commitment to defending its allies in the Indo-Pacific.
Nonetheless, any condemnation of the use of nuclear weapons is a promising development. In this regard, the Biden-Xi summit scored a small win. It was further bolstered by a meeting the next day between Wang and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov wherein the Russian side “reiterated its established position that a nuclear war must never be fought.”
As Xi continues on the diplomatic campaign trail following his success at the recent 20th National Party Congress, there will be more opportunities for foreign leaders to build consensus with Beijing against the threat or use of nuclear force. This will, of course, have to contend with Xi’s own diplomatic priorities.
3. The Biden-Xi meeting was just one piece of a sweeping diplomatic campaign as Xi returns to the international stage to begin his third term.
Staats: The Biden-Xi meeting was part of a broader surge in China’s diplomatic engagements as nearly three years of self-imposed pandemic-related seclusion has given way to a surge of diplomatic activity following last month’s National Party Congress. Xi made his first trip abroad since January 2020 in September, when he traveled briefly to Kazakhstan and attended a Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Uzbekistan, then returned to China until the conclusion of the Party Congress. Now that he has cemented his leadership for the next five years, Xi is using this flurry of bilateral meetings and multilateral summits to set the tone for China’s international relations in his third term.
On the multilateral stage, Xi attended both the G-20 summit in Indonesia and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Thailand. Xi's bilateral outreach has included welcoming Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif as the first foreign leader to visit China after the Party Congress, followed by visits from German Chancellor Scholtz and Tanzania President Samia Suluhu Hassan. On the sidelines of the meetings in Bali and Bangkok, Xi not only met with Biden but also held bilateral talks with several key U.S. allies.
This whirlwind of mask-free, in-person engagement by China’s leader has four goals:
- Reframe and refresh relationships that have deteriorated over the past three years. There is no substitute for face-to-face diplomacy in international relations, and this week’s engagements have been vital for helping China and other nations address areas of contention and rising geopolitical tensions before they reach a boiling point.
- Formalize international recognition of Xi’s third term and reaffirm his key policy priorities and positions. Xi rebuffed requests from Western leaders to take a harder public line against Russia’s war in Ukraine, instead focusing on China’s desire to sustain robust economic and trade relations that are not hindered by politics and diplomatic relations that do not interfere in a country’s internal affairs.
- Demonstrate China’s global leadership and affirm Xi’s stature on the international stage, presenting China-led solutions to global problems, and urging others to see China’s approach as a legitimate alternative to U.S.-led initiatives. In each forum, Xi repeated his key messages, warning that “the Asia-Pacific is no one's backyard and should not become an arena of big power rivalry,” highlighting China’s contributions to address food and energy insecurity, and pointing to China-led initiatives as the world’s best options for promoting economic development, peace and security.
- Highlight and exploit areas of potential difference between the United States and its allies. In particular, Xi called on the European Union to pursue an “independent and positive” China policy, and encouraged his European counterparts not to politicize their economic ties with China in response to tougher semiconductor export control measures introduced by the United States.