How much did China gain from Xi-Biden summit in San Francisco?

Following the high-profile meeting between Chinese supreme leader Xi Jinping and U.S. president Joe Biden on November 15 in San Francisco on the sideline of the APEC summit, both leaders agreed to resume high-level military-to-military communication between their respective countries and new bilateral efforts to tackle international drug manufacturing and trafficking, as per a White House readout.

Notably, the optics from Xi’s first visit to the U.S. since 2017, seemed to work well domestically in China. 

Videos of companionable moments between Xi and Biden, such as when Biden shared with Xi a 1985 photo of the latter posing near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and Xi breaking into laughter upon recognizing himself in the photo, went viral on Chinese social media. 

Xi’s televised garden walk with Biden was emphasized in China’s tightly controlled media to show a domestic audience that their leader was managing China’s most important economic and political relationship.

“Xi Jinping may have made the calculation that overhyping the American threat does China and his standing in the party and the party itself more harm than good,” said Drew Thompson, a former Pentagon official who is now a scholar at the National University of Singapore. “The fact that we are debating whether China is investible is a real problem for China.”

Regarding the largely respectful reception given by the American side to Xi, Lu Xiang, a specialist on Sino-US relations at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think-tank, opined that while Xi’s visit “was not a state visit, but Xi was given VIP treatment”.

What also resounded well back in China were the standing ovations that Xi received during a dinner speech he gave to an audience of American business honchos who headed to San Francisco to meet with Xi, in wake of the latter’s bid to deal with China’s faltering economy and high youth unemployment levels. 

Moreover, Xi seemed to have attained his own aims for visiting the U.S., such as obtaining U.S. policy concessions in exchange for promises of collaboration, an easing of bilateral tensions that permit a greater emphasis on economic growth, and a chance to woo foreign investors who have increasingly steered clear from China amid the Chinese government’s increasing clampdown on foreign businesses.

“We invite friends from business communities across the world to invest and deepen your footprint in China,” Xi declared at the APEC CEO summit, pledging action on the list of items that rile foreign investors, including matters relating to intellectual property theft to data security.

China acknowledged that it is still important for the country’s economic progress to have somewhat normal ties with the U.S. and Western countries, contended Li Mingjiang, a professor at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“It’s the fundamental driving force behind the meeting.”

Regarding the contentious issue of Taiwan, Xi told Biden that “the U.S. side should take real actions to honor its commitment of not supporting Taiwan independence, stop arming Taiwan, and support China’s peaceful reunification. China will (eventually) realize reunification, and this is unstoppable”, based on a Chinese government statement.

The Chinese leader also described the Taiwan question as the “most important and most sensitive” issue in Sino-U.S. ties. 

Biden stated to Xi that although Washington does not back full Taiwanese independence, it remained concerned about Chinese pugilism vis-a-vis the self-governing island. While Biden’s remarks fell short of what Xi desired to hear, they arguably enabled Xi a tad more leeway to focus on issues that could de-escalate bilateral tensions over Taiwan’s future for the long haul. 

After his meeting with Biden, Xi stated that the doors between the U.S. and China cannot “be closed again”.

Averting a Cold War scenario with the U.S. has been one of Xi’s official objectives, laid out in what has been touted as the “Five No’s” proclaimed at the 2021 Alaska summit between China’s former director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

For his part, Biden said after the San Francisco summit that while Sino-U.S. ties were competitive, his job was to make them “rational and manageable”.

“If the U.S. and China can manage their differences … it will mean that Xi Jinping doesn’t have to divert all of his attention to that (bilateral relations),” said Alexander Neill, an adjunct fellow at Hawaii’s Pacific Forum think-tank. “He needs to focus on his domestic agenda, which is incredibly pressing.”

Substantively, however, China obtained much less than it had sought ahead of the Xi-Biden summit. 

It remains to be seen whether the U.S. will loosen trade and tech restrictions and stop sanctioning Chinese firms.

According to Global Taiwan Institute Deputy Director John Dotson, while any meeting between American and Chinese leaders “is a sign of progress in and of itself”, Dotson admitted to NTD’s Capitol Report that the tangible outcomes from the Xi-Biden meeting will likely remain “pretty modest”. 

“There has been some sort of hyping of limited signs of progress, such as the restoration of military-military communication ties, and supposedly efforts by the Chinese to crack down on fentanyl production. But I think these are actually pretty modest steps overall,” Dotson said.

Dotson admitted that he did not “put a lot of faith” in the Chinese side to deliver on commitments that Xi agreed to during his meeting with Biden. 

Miles Yu, a senior fellow and director of the China Center at the Hudson Institute, also described the outcomes from the Xi-Biden meeting as “very limited”, calling for a wait-and-see approach on the action items both leaders discussed in the closed-door interaction.

Yu told Capitol Report that although Sino-U.S. agreements to boost military-to-military communications, enlarge bilateral counter-narcotics operations, and commit to the non-weaponization of artificial intelligence all sounded “very good”, he acknowledged “some suspicion about the enforceability of those agreements”.

Also, an academic with links to the Beijing regime who requested anonymity as he did not have permission from his employer to speak to the media, admitted that “China did not get all it wanted,” adding that “it was passable”.

The Chinese academic pointed out, while China wants the U.S. to stop arming Taiwan, “this is unlikely to happen”.

Likewise, Dotson evaluated that both the U.S. and China “remained pretty staunch in their positions on Taiwan” following the Xi-Biden meeting. 

In its own portrayal of the meeting, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Xi reinforced the Chinese stance that the U.S. must commit to not backing Taiwanese independence and stop arming Taiwan.

Notwithstanding the Sino-U.S. agreement to resume military contacts, miscalculations in the future cannot be excluded, owing to deep-seated mistrust between Beijing and Washington.

What is more, the U.S. and its allies are also likely to continue what Beijing perceives as military incursions into Chinese waters and airspace under the basis of freedom of navigation.

Additionally, Dotson posited that China relies on its economic ties with other nations as a tool to coerce those nations to remain in China’s good graces or to penalize actions the Beijing regime frowns upon. 

“When there’s some political action in Taiwan that the PRC doesn’t like and they want to send a symbolic message, that’s when they suddenly find bugs in shipments of fruit and have to declare a ban on them,” Dotson said. 

“So we’ve seen bans over the last few years on Taiwanese products such as pineapples, on monkfish, wax, apples, things like this. And those bans tend to come about at not-coincidental moments when the Chinese Communist Party, the CCP, wishes to send a message. So yes, the CCP does very much use economic coercion as an active tool of policy.”

Dotson posited that similar coercive methods have emerged amid China’s economic relations with the U.S.

“There has been a long ongoing effort over the course of many years by the Chinese government to try to control the supply and trade in rare earth minerals … and of trying to use their very dominant position in the rare earths market as a tool of leverage over the United States, in other areas of policy—either opening the gates a little bit when they’re happy, and choosing to close those gates when they wish to send a message,” Dotson said.

In his remarks to Capitol Report, Dotson said “there’s no entirely easy answer” for how the U.S. should manage economic ties with China moving forward.

“I think it would be extremely difficult to cut ourselves off completely from the Chinese economy,” he said. “But I do think there are sensible steps that can be taken to reduce U.S. economic dependence on China in a number of areas … but also sort of reducing the dependence that we have on the PRC for manufacturing in a number of areas.”

On that note, Yu argued that the U.S. should concentrate less on establishing bilateral relationships with China, as opposed to boosting ties with other nations in the Indo-Pacific region.

“China has a problem with virtually every democracy in the world. So the artificial height of this supreme importance of the U.S.-China bilateral relationship is actually not helpful because what we can see here is China versus the rest of the world, it’s not just China versus the United States,” Yu said.

Photo credit: iStock/ William_Potter

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