The Sino-American San Francisco Summit: Causes and Insights

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US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met on the sideline of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, almost exactly a year after their last encounter at the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali. As the summit began all eyes were on the two most influential leaders of the world, where they talked for more than more than four hours in an attempt to stabilize relations, damaged by trade and security concerns in recent years.

This highly anticipated meeting came amid spiraling geopolitical tensions over the Israeli war in Gaza, the ongoing Ukraine-Russia war and the Sino-American bilateral relationship being plunged at its bottom in the past five decades. As were expected, the security and trade issues dominated the agendas and US president Biden described the meeting as having “some of the most constructive and productive discussions.” The bilateral summit ended with some tangible progress in military and security realms, coupled with agreements, addressing climate change and the plastic crisis. Despite initial low expectations, some believe the meeting surpassed the minimum threshold for success, with promises to de-escalate tensions in the near future.

Recent Engagements

Lately, the Sino-American bilateral relationship has been characterized by a volatile mix of economic competition, trade disputes, geopolitical tensions, and ideological differences. The bilateral relations nosedived under former US President Donald Trump, and now there is rising tensions between the two—including on tariffs, semiconductor chips, surveillance, China’s increasing militarisation in the South China Sea and assertive approach in its neighborhood. The Biden administration also seems to maintain Trump’s policy by sustaining tariffs and imposing restrictions on Chinese tech companies.

The trade war that unfolded in 2018-2019 marked a significant point of contention, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020, with accusations and blame surrounding its origin. Furthermore, issues such as the imposition of the Hong Kong National Security Law, human rights concerns in Uighur, territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the treatment of Taiwan have strained ties.

Lately, the technological rivalry, especially in areas like 5G and AI, has also been a focal point as the US imposed a ban on semiconductor export and accused Chinese tech companies like TikTok and Huawei of spying. The latest saga included US house speaker Nancy Pelosi visiting Taiwan and the Chinese suspending the communication lines in retaliation. The surveillance balloon incidents in February this year, where the US shut down the balloons claiming it to be Chinese espionage, added further heat. All these have led to growing suspicion and tension in the bilateral relations, manifested in repeated incidents of US and Chinese forces operating in perilously close quarters in the Asia-Pacific.

Agendas

President Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping had no shortage of difficult issues to discuss in their first face to face meeting in a year. The US-China relationship is beyond the days where meetings conclude with a long list of announcements and agreements; instead, both leaders approached the table with low expectations but a well-prepared foundation established through high-level meetings and prior groundwork. Against the backdrop of longstanding disagreements, Biden and Xi sought to bring a greater measure of stability to the relationship.

For the US, concerns encompassed human rights, democratic processes in China’s vicinity, Beijing’s role in ongoing Middle Eastern and Russia-Ukraine crisis, the North Korean question, and efforts to curb the production of the synthetic opioid fentanyl were high on the agenda. Biden emphasized on managing the escalating economic competition and maintaining open lines of communication to avert misunderstandings that could escalate into direct conflicts.

For China, priorities revolved around Taiwan, the tariff war, and attracting US investors. Beijing’s demands were made clear during last year’s G-20 summit in Bali, where Xi emphasized China’s significant interest regarding Taiwan and labeled it as the first red line that must not be crossed in the relationship. Building confidence among American business leaders and ensuring them of secure investment conditions in China was crucial for Xi, given China’s reliance on foreign investment to revitalize its economy. Additionally, de-escalating bilateral relations was also important for them, recognizing that a Cold War-like scenario and geopolitical confrontation would further exacerbate its current economically volatile situation.

Outcome of The Summit

During their meeting, the two Presidents had substantive discussions on strategic and fundamental aspects shaping China-US relations, as well as global peace and development.  The issue of Taiwan took center stage, with China urging the US to uphold commitments on its one China policy, and expressing a preference for reunification, while not excluding the possibility of using force. In response, Biden emphasized the US commitment to regional peace, indicating the huge military buildup surrounding the island, and urged China to respect the democratic process, especially with the upcoming election in two months.

Turmoil in the Middle East and Europe was part of the discussion, though no concrete agreements were reached. Both sides have expressed mounting frustration with the other, disagreeing over issues related to the Israel-Palestine conflict and the Russia-Ukraine war. Washington accused China of providing economic support to Russia amid the conflict, while China pointed to US support for Israel and its use of the UN Security Council veto to oppose calls for a ceasefire.

The complexities of the Middle East gained special significance in the discussion, as Biden stressed the importance of the region and highlighted the responsibilities. Biden sought China’s help in de-escalating tension with Iran, and utilize its influence with Iran to discourage provocative actions by its proxies like Hezbollah and Hamas, that could escalate conflicts in the Middle East. On climate issues, the world’s leading polluters agreed to resume cooperation, pledging to work together on addressing methane and plastic pollution ahead of the COP-28 climate summit. Both nations committed to establishing a bilateral working group on climate action to ensure the success of COP-28.

The key outcome of the summit was an agreement to restore military-to-military communications, meaning the potential of meetings between US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart, once appointed, with possibilities for direct communication at lower levels. Additionally, discussions centered on fentanyl production also been positive, with China committing to target associated companies, and the US expressing its intention to closely monitor these efforts.

Significance of The Summit

The US-China bilateral relationship, undoubtedly, is the most important of its kind in the world, and the fact that the meeting took place, itself a success, considering the complexities of the relation. While the outcomes may seem shallow, the importance of the summit in San Francisco cannot be understated just with that. However, each side had compelling incentives to make the meeting productive, with Xi aiming to revive investments in a sluggish Chinese economy and Biden seeking to maintain the temperatures ‘low’ in Asia-Pacific.

Against the backdrop of conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, the US had no desire to open a third front. Biden was also aware of the potential political firestorm because of just talking with China, thus needed to demonstrate toughness, particularly in the face of criticisms from Republican presidential candidates that he is old and weak to maintain global stability and unable to secure American interest. Thus, avoiding another front with China was crucial for his reelection narrative, and the agreement on curbing Fentanyl provided him a positive talking point for his reelection campaign, positioning him as a savior of millions, in the fight against the narcotic epidemic.

Xi, although, does not face any dissent in a communist political set up, even has to face political pressures and constraints currently due to sluggish economy. Moreover, he arrived in San Francisco after a period of unusual turmoil in Chinese politics, firing both his foreign and defense ministers in recent months. China’s economic crises, including a housing market collapse and rising youth unemployment, underscored the necessity for Xi to de-escalate relations with the US as Washington’s restriction on Beijing’s semiconductor industry has resulted in US technological companies relocating their investment in other countries. There are also many questions among the US tech leaders regarding the uninterrupted business conditions in China. The San Francisco summit provided the stage to meet the tech CEO’s and woo them.

The enormity of US-China tensions makes it impossible to completely resolve everything in a single summit or continue without summit. Despite incremental progress in the summit, the trajectory, however, appears destined to bend toward confrontation. The US views China as its sole challenger, while Xi views the US as the main obstacle to China’s rise. The reminds the world about the Cold War era when the US and the former Soviet Union often met to stabilize their bilateral relations and to bring about peaceful overtures in international politics. China and the USA are perhaps moving towards this direction.

– Wahid Uzzaman Sifat is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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