Xi-Biden Meeting: Chinese Experts React
"The Biden-Xi meeting has put the two countries on a less threatening trajectory in the short term. But one meeting alone cannot halt the long-term momentum in the direction of conflict." – Wang Jisi
Much like in the West, last week’s meeting between US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping (习近平), on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco received particularly positive coverage in China. Wu Xinbo (吴心伯), the director of Fudan University’s Institute of International Studies and an authoritative voice on US-China relations, called it “the most important diplomatic event between China and the United States to have taken place since Biden assumed office.” Washington and Beijing may be diametrically opposed in their conception of their relationship with one another, writes Wu, but the need for “stability” (稳定) has now become a key consensus between both sides.
“But,” queries Li Cheng (李成), a well-known “returnee scholar” at the University of Hong Kong and former director of the Brookings Institution’s John L. Thornton China Center, shortly before Xi’s meeting with Biden, “has the US-China relationship reached a ‘turning point’ [转折点]? My answer is no.” “Détente” (缓和) rather than an actual “improvement” (改善) of relations best characterises the current thaw between Beijing and Washington, argue Wu Xinbo and Jin Canrong (金灿荣). The latter is a popular international relations professor at Renmin University of China, perhaps better known for his chauvinistic opinion pieces in China’s mainstream media. Prudence rather than unalloyed optimism about the short-to-medium-term prospects of US-China ties best defines most of these reactions.
Beyond the oft-cited “structural contradictions” (结构性矛盾) that underlie US-China ties, the most dreaded destabilising factor in this fragile relationship has long been next year’s US presidential election. The volatility of US politics and polarisation of American society as a whole are a matter of real concern in China and are not highlighted merely as an excuse to denigrate America or to vaunt the merits and alleged superiority of their own country’s political system (although that happens, too). Jia Qingguo (贾庆国), the director of Peking University’s Institute for Global Cooperation and Understanding and a long-time foreign policy adviser in the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), sees the next US election as one of the most uncertain in recent history and fears, like most observers, that it could become a contest of who can be tougher on China, involving pledges that candidates would then have to honour once in power, he says. Moreover, “If the other candidate does not recognise the results of the election, what happens then? … It is safe to say that democracy in the United States faces challenges of a magnitude never seen before in our lifetime,” remarks Li Cheng in a recent interview with The Paper. Jia Qingguo hopes that the Democrats will retain power for he sees them, despite all their so-called “prejudices against China”, as the least prone to dragging the US-China relationship into outright confrontation.
The APEC summit was often seen as one of the last opportunities for China to ease tensions with Washington before the US election race begins. In August, Song Guoyou (宋国友), the deputy director of Fudan University’s influential Centre for American Studies, commented:
“The extent to which US-China relations will be able to rebound in 2023 will determine the degree to which the bilateral relationship will fall back in 2024. [In other words,] the greater the progress that can be made in relations throughout 2023, the more they will be able to withstand the potentially severe impact [剧烈冲击] of domestic political factors coming from America in 2024 as well as other factors (such as the outcome of the election on our island of Taiwan).”
Recent political commentaries in China often go out of their way to present Xi’s trip as a magnanimous gesture afforded to an American president in need of pre-election political wins as well as some respite from the many domestic and international problems currently facing the US. Jin Canrong stresses that the main agreements reached during Biden’s meeting with Xi were all outcomes that Washington had sought from Beijing rather than the other way round: a clampdown on Chinese companies exporting chemicals used to make fentanyl, the reopening of military-to-military communication channels and the establishment of a dialogue on artificial intelligence. “China is more focused on matters of principle [原则性的问题] and US commitments on major [i.e. strategic] issues”, writes Wang Hao (王浩), an associate professor at Fudan University’s Centre for American Studies. These were embodied in Beijing’s “five pillars” for US-China relations: “developing a right perception [of one another]”; “managing disagreements effectively”; “advancing mutually beneficial cooperation”; “shouldering responsibilities as major countries”; and “promoting people-to-people exchanges”.
Beyond this banal political rhetoric endlessly repeated in commentaries published since the meeting, Chinese scholars have occasionally touched upon some of the more tangible benefits that Beijing may have sought to gain from this summit. On the economic front, although Trump-era tariffs and tech export controls have remained firmly in place, Wu Xinbo believes that improving relations with Washington should help stimulate China’s slowing economy by boosting market confidence and attracting much needed foreign investment into the PRC. Diplomatically, the current détente is seen as key to alleviating some of the pressures faced by China internationally. Not least because many countries continue to adjust their policy towards Beijing in accordance with the state of US-China ties, argues Wu. Shen Yi (沈逸), a famous nationalist opinion leader and director of Fudan University’s Centre for International Cyberspace Governance, believes that the current diplomatic thaw should help discourage countries such as the Philippines and Japan from engaging in excessively confrontational behaviour toward China. Inevitably, the meeting was also cited as crucial in reaffirming Beijing’s thick red line vis-à-vis Taiwan and clarifying once more that the US’s One China policy and Washington’s restraint from encouraging Taiwanese independence remain the key to maintaining stable and, most importantly, peaceful relations with Beijing.
In terms of China’s global image, the summit was evidently an important means for Xi to signal both to an international and to a domestic audience that China is indeed the “responsible great power” that it wishes to be seen as, one that is now on a par with the US and capable of managing the world’s most important and difficult bilateral relationship. This was very much the message conveyed by Shen Yi to his two million followers as he stressed that, “China has begun to look at the United States squarely in the eye, with more confidence and composure, and has even more clearly demonstrated to the world China's [diplomatic] pattern [中国的格局], bearing [气度], strategy and mindset [胸怀].”
Such signalling is consistent with Beijing’s past pattern of communication. More difficult has been the need to reconcile the sudden outpouring of positive coverage of the Xi-Biden meeting with the inherently anti-US bias that China’s media usually carries. This was evident in a question put by a journalist from the popular news site Guancha.cn to the director of Renmin University’s Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies and former Global Times journalist, Wang Wen (王文):