The four-hour meeting between President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart China Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco on Nov. 15 did not resolve the fundamental strategic rivalry between the two powers, but it may herald a temporary détente.
The talks were described as “blunt,” but Washington and Beijing seem to agree that a truce in bilateral relations is needed even if major issues remain unresolved. Both powers face complex domestic challenges, and both feel the effects of the wars in Ukraine and in Israel-Palestine on their respective policy objectives. China is experiencing a period of economic weakness, while the conflict in the Middle East is causing rifts between the United States and its traditional allies.
No progress was made on the one subject crucial to China’s relations with the United States: the future of Taiwan. Xi reiterated that reunification “cannot be stopped” and that a resolution needs to be found in the near term. While adding that there are no plans for military action against Taiwan in the coming years, he said that it represents the most delicate topic in relations between the two powers. He asked Washington once again not to support calls for Taiwan’s independence and not to provide arms to the island, knowing full well that nothing will change in the current U.S. posture.
For the upholders of the U.S. strategy of global dominance, preventing the unification of Taiwan with the People’s Republic is a vital, and therefore nonnegotiable, geopolitical objective. It is seen as essential to stop China from breaking through the first island chain from the Yellow, East, and South China Seas to the Pacific Ocean, and thus becoming a first-class maritime power capable of challenging U.S. naval dominance.
For the time being China feels severely constrained by the island barrier which runs from Japan, across the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, and the Philippines to Indonesia. Taiwan is situated at the heart of this chain. Access from the South China Sea—which Beijing already seeks to dominate—to the Pacific Ocean is south of Taiwan. Access to the Indian Ocean is even more challenging: It runs through the narrow Malacca Straits bordered by Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
In Taiwan itself, while Biden and Xi were meeting in San Francisco, the Taiwanese Kuomintang (KMT, which upholds the “One China” principle) and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) have agreed to field a single candidate next January against the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), currently in power and opposed to unification. The agreement was facilitated by the former Taiwanese president and ex-KMT leader Ma Ying-jeou, who visited the People’s Republic last April. The election could have a decisive impact on relations between Beijing and Taipei.
There was no agreement on technology. Washington is trying to slow down the technological rise of the People’s Republic with unilateral sanctions. Beijing, in turn, is working to reduce its dependence on the U.S., especially with respect to the microchip production chain. This dynamic explains the interest—reiterated by Xi—in preserving relations with American businesses and the opening of China’s market to foreign investors. U.S. business leaders responded enthusiastically. When Xi met close to 400 senior executives for dinner in San Francisco on Wednesday, he was greeted with not one but three standing ovations. It was a major PR coup for Xi, who assured his audience that China was ready to be a “partner and friend” to the United States and warned that it was wrong to play a zero-sum game against it.
Xi and Biden have agreed on three topics, of which only the first is truly significant: the widely expected reopening of high-level military communications. Both sides agree that direct and continuous links are necessary to avoid accidents in the Indo-Pacific, where close encounters between ships and planes of their armed forces are happening daily. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will meet his new Chinese counterpart soon after that post is filled.
An agreement was reached to stop illegal trafficking of fentanyl, the highly addictive substance distributed by narco-cartels in the United States, of which China is the largest producer. It is estimated to cause overdose deaths of tens of thousands of Americans every year. Under the agreement, China will go directly after specific chemical firms that make fentanyl precursors.
If the agreement on fentanyl is largely symbolic, the one on climate change is completely meaningless. Not for the first time, the U.S. and China agreed in principle to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. No quantifiable goals were set, however, other than the pledge to triple the global use of renewable energy by 2030. This obliges the Chinese side to nothing in particular. Coal remains China’s main energy resource, and Beijing remains loath to be bound by any Western-devised deadlines and “protocols” which would restrain its future economic growth.
It is noteworthy that before the meeting Xi said, “Planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed.” In fact, this apparently conciliatory phrase confirmed that—from Xi’s point of view—the Middle Kingdom has yet to achieve parity with the self-styled leader of the international community. In other words, there may be a temporary détente in China’s relations with America, but competition remains the name of the game for the long term. That much is clear from Xi’s allusion to China’s often-stated objective to become an equal and accepted participant in shaping the destiny of the world.
Such aspirations are anathema to the current U.S. administration. It remains fixated on upholding the “rules-based international order,” with Washington dictating the rules. To the Chinese, and to practically everyone else outside the “collective West,” this phrase is intensely irritating and the concept behind it abhorrent. It denotes unrestrained U.S. global hegemony, an “order” in which the hegemon imposes “rules” as its leaders deem fit.
Rigidly dogmatic in its strategic assumptions, the Biden team is determined to contest the impression—widespread in China and all across the “global South” —that the U.S. global empire is in decline. Suffice to say that, after meeting Xi, Biden once again referred to him as a dictator. “Well, look, he is, I mean, he’s a dictator in the sense that he is a guy who runs a country that is a Communist country,” Biden declared in his inimitable fashion.
China’s grand strategy of building and projecting its “comprehensive national power” is a long-term geopolitical design fundamentally incompatible with Washington’s determination to maintain its open-ended “full spectrum dominance.” After Biden’s meeting with Xi there is no reason to believe that the model of Thucydides’ Trap has been in any way invalidated as the clue to understanding the course of U.S.-Chinese relations in the years to come.