Nov 17, 2021 05:27 AM

Opinion: Summit Sets the Right Course for China-U.S. Relations

The U.S. and Chinese heads of state finally held their first video summit Nov. 16, 10 months after President Joe Biden took office. The China-U.S. relationship had to survive the Trump administration’s burst of trade disputes and technology decoupling since 2018, followed by a period of adjustment since Biden’s inauguration in January. Now the relationship has reached a point where the two leaders need to inject new political momentum and chart the right course.

China and the U.S. made a Joint Declaration on Intensifying Climate Action in the 2020s during the U.N. climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, last week, signaling a joint effort by the world’s two largest carbon emitters to push the climate talks forward. The statement also indicated renewed China-U.S. cooperation and quickly drew positive reactions from the international community.

Of course, even if climate as an issue can be an oasis in the China-U.S. relationship, it may not last long, as State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi said during his meeting with John Kerry, the U.S. presidential special envoy for climate change. If the overall environment of Sino-U.S. relations is a desert, then the oasis will turn to sand sooner or later, Wang pointed out.

How to address the root causes of tensions, make adjustments and establish a macro climate between China and the U.S. became the top priority for the two heads of state in their meeting. The summit touched on strategic, global and fundamental issues.

At the outset of the meeting, President Xi Jinping emphasized that a healthy and stable China-U.S. relationship is needed to promote the development of both countries and to maintain a peaceful and stable international environment, including effective responses to global challenges such as climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic. Xi said China and the United States should respect each other, live together peacefully and cooperate for a win-win situation. He also expressed his willingness to form a consensus with Biden and act positively to lead the China-U.S. relationship forward positively, "which is necessary for the benefit of the two peoples and expected by the international community."

Biden, for his part, began by reiterating a position he has expressed on several occasions, that the two leaders should ensure that the competition between China and the United States does not lead to conflict — either intentionally or unintentionally. Biden also advocated the establishment of some consensus "guardrails" in the China-U.S. relationship so that the two countries can work together where interests intersect and remain clear and forthright where there are differences.

However, over the past few years, U.S. actions have repeatedly betrayed the expectations of Chinese society for stable, healthy and rational development of Sino-U.S. relations. These include blowing the wind of unilateralism, provoking trade disputes against China and generalizing the concept of national security to curb the legitimate path of research, development, transformation and upgrading of Chinese enterprises. This has caused anxiety in the international community about whether the two global powers can continue to coexist peacefully.

Many of the negative aspects imposed on China-U.S. relations during the Trump era have yet to be dissolved. Whether it is the unreasonable visa restrictions on Chinese Communist Party members and their families or the unfair treatment of Chinese citizens and foreign students in the United States, the “three bottom lines” and two lists of demands that China submitted to the U.S. are all evident and need urgently to be remedied.

It can be said that the pace of getting China-U.S. relations back on the right track depends mainly on how far the Biden administration is determined to step out of the shadow of the Trump era. It also depends on the strength of Biden's vision and thinking to perceive the direction of China-U.S. relations from a historical height without being caught up in the pressures of the U.S. domestic political arena.

After half a century of development, the normalization of China-U.S. relations has proved to be one of the most crucial decisions affecting the well-being of both countries and the fate of the world. This week’s meeting was a start toward addressing the most important issue in international relations for the next 50 years: the need for China and the United States to find a way to get along with each other.

Xi made clear in the meeting that China is willing to deal frankly with some of the differences that are bound to arise in the relationship and to maintain the bottom line of no conflict and no confrontation. In response to the U.S. position that China and the United States can coexist, Xi went a step further and expressed the intention that China and the U.S. should do so peacefully.

At the same time, Xi also made clear, while acknowledging "it is natural to have differences," that it is important to manage the differences constructively and avoid expanding and intensifying them. The aim and purpose is to make the two ships "go forward together against the wind and waves, not to yaw, not to lose speed, and not to collide," the president said

China also reminded the U.S. that it must carefully address issues related to China's sovereignty, security and development interests.

In particular on Taiwan, Xi told Biden that there are some in the U.S. who intend to "use Taiwan to curtail China" and that "this trend is very dangerous and is playing with fire." The Chinese mainland is willing to face Taiwan with the greatest sincerity and make the greatest effort to fight for the prospect of peaceful reunification, Xi said. "But if the 'Taiwan independence' separatist forces provoke and force the issue, or even break through the red line, we will have to take decisive measures," Xi said.

In response, Biden declared that as president he pursues a longstanding and consistent one-China policy, does not support Taiwan independence, and does not seek to change the Chinese system or oppose China through strengthened alliances.

Biden's basic position in the meeting arguably addressed the most sensitive and unpredictable minefield in the China-U.S. relationship, and one that is most likely to cause a loss of mutual trust and a rise in suspicion.

Of course, we also recognize that in the relatively more complex and decentralized system of the United States, it will take longer for the consensus reached and the messages exchanged at the meeting to be transmitted to executive departments and transformed into a whole-government consensus.

It remains to be seen whether the competitive bilateral relationship can be precisely framed in terms of useful, fair and healthy competition rather than being derailed and reduced to the kind of slippage into conflict without guardrails that Biden wanted to avoid. It will depend on whether Biden and his administration can exercise leadership over the entire U.S. political system so that the consensus reached at the summit can be translated into a push to put China-U.S. relations back on track.

Xu Heqian is a world news editor at Caixin Media.

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