U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet this coming week on the sidelines of the G20 for the first time since Biden entered office. The meeting is an opportunity for the leaders to place bilateral relations on better footing after the fallout from the Ukraine war, tensions over Taiwan, and increased technological competition. A single discussion cannot address the full scope of challenges that exist between the two countries, but it can serve as a high-level channel of communication at a time of strained relations. Below, we discuss some of the factors in play as the two leaders prepare to meet.
How will China’s 20th Party Congress and the U.S. midterms impact the two countries’ relations?
The results of both events have only reinforced concerns in Washington and Beijing about the other side’s worst intentions. Many observers in the United States view China as becoming more authoritarian, more ideological, and more of a challenge to the international rules-based order. Xi’s speech delivered at the Party Congress put an emphasis on national security, ideology, and technological self-sufficiency—three areas of particular friction with the United States. Several party officials with backgrounds in national security were appointed to the new Chinese Communist Party Politburo, indicating that the party may be gearing up for a period of heightened tension in foreign affairs.
Similarly, the greater Republican influence in the U.S. Congress has led to concerns in China that Washington will push even harder on issues such as Taiwan and press for further economic decoupling. It could also raise concerns in Beijing that former president Donald Trump, or a Trump-like candidate, will return to the White House in 2025, leading to further tension in the U.S.-China relationship.
The tendency of both sides to make worst-case assessments about the other will make it even harder for Washington and Beijing to find ways to put the relationship on a more stable footing. While it may be more difficult for Biden and Xi to engage constructively against the backdrop of increasingly tense domestic politics, high-level exchanges will also become more important in this environment. Xi’s decision to appoint close political allies to the Politburo Standing Committee means that he may not receive accurate information about the United States and its intentions, so Biden will want to the use the opportunity of an in-person meeting to convey his unfiltered views. Xi, for his part, could use direct engagement with Biden as a potential hedge against what could be more hardline policies from the U.S. Congress.
What will Biden and Xi each be hoping to accomplish at the bilateral meeting?
The two leaders will inevitably have different priorities, but they should strive to find common ground and try to establish more effective means of long-term communication.
For Biden, climate change and the Ukraine war will likely be at the front of mind, and he likely will use the opportunity to reiterate that any Chinese efforts to violate financial sanctions or provide military support to Russia will be met with costs. He also likely will attempt to reopen dialogue channels, including the working-level dialogue on climate cooperation, that Beijing shut down after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August. Biden might also seek to reopen important military dialogues with Beijing or try to establish new crisis avoidance and management mechanisms to prevent competition from resulting in an inadvertent conflict or to manage conflict should it occur.
Xi, for his part, is likely to reiterate messages that he and his diplomatic team have repeated in nearly every engagement with their American counterparts since Biden entered office—namely that Washington should reverse its economic and technological pressure on China and respect its core interests, especially Taiwan. Despite the intensity of bilateral competition in recent years, Xi and the party have continued to insist, at least rhetorically, that U.S.-China relations should be based on positive-sum dynamics. The issue with such rhetoric is that, in practice, many of China’s policies toward the United States and its allies have become increasingly aggressive, if not adversarial.
In terms of common ground, the two leaders could identify two or three areas of possible cooperation, such as finding effective means to collaborate on climate change or expanding people-to-people exchanges.
How can the two leaders lower tensions in the Taiwan Strait?
Taiwan will likely be a top discussion point, as tensions between the two have reached new heights in recent months.
U.S. officials have grown concerned that Beijing may be speeding up its timeline to resolve the Taiwan issue, given increased pressure toward the island in recent years. Although Xi reiterated China’s preference for a peaceful resolution to the Taiwan issue during the 20th Party Congress, Biden could seek direct reassurances from the Chinese president that a resort to arms would be the last option and gain clarity about what actions by the United States might cross Beijing’s “red lines.” Xi, for his part, may have questions regarding Biden’s repeated claims that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of an attack on the island.
The two leaders could begin to reduce the perception gap by agreeing that conflict in the Taiwan Strait would be in neither country’s interest. To reduce the chances of miscalculation, Biden and Xi should communicate their respective views of actions by the other side that are perceived to be undermining the status quo. This process would be aided by the reestablishment of military communication mechanisms that were cut off after Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.
But even if the two presidents make progress in Bali, the outcome of the U.S. midterm elections could further complicate the situation. If Republicans take control of the House of Representatives, they may push for a more robust version of the Taiwan Policy Act, explicitly designating Taiwan as a major non-NATO ally. Additionally, the House could begin to debate whether the United States should move away from its policy of strategic ambiguity and whether adherence to the one-China Policy remains in U.S. interests. In this context, Beijing and Washington will need to maintain high-level communication channels to reassure one another that their official policies have not changed.
The Biden administration recently enacted new restrictions on semiconductor exports to China. How might the two leaders discuss this?
The United States has long held concerns about American firms exporting technologies to China that could be used for military purposes or that contribute to the Chinese government’s efforts to surveil and control its population. Beijing’s pursuit of indigenous innovation and efforts to dominate strategic industries through policies like Made in China 2025 and “dual circulation” have also raised concerns in Washington about the risks of inadvertently contributing to China’s strategic technological development.
Beijing could respond by interfering with the production lines of major U.S. companies in China—such as Apple or Tesla—or restricting rare earths exports, which are essential components for developing clean technologies. Beijing, however, would be unable to take such actions without inflicting significant collateral damage on its own economy.
Biden and Xi could commit to a process where the two sides identify the areas where technology competition will be the most intense to reduce the chances of misunderstanding and to allow for continued economic exchanges in non-sensitive areas. Competition in frontier technologies is likely to broaden to other fields, including quantum computing, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence. So although competition in these areas will be intense, Biden and Xi should seek to delimit areas of disengagement so that friction does not bleed into areas of the relationship where the possibility of collaboration might still exist.
Beyond the meeting between Biden and Xi, is it possible for the United States and China to avoid conflict or confrontation over the long term?
Unless Biden and Xi can find a way for their governments to engage in in-depth exchanges on the range of fraught issues, the upcoming meeting between the two leaders will have little long-term impact. At the meeting, the two presidents should identify a subsequent opportunity to meet. In the interim, they should appoint entrusted and empowered officials to further the dialogue. This should be one part of a longer-term effort to establish more robust communication mechanisms to build on areas of common ground and to manage the areas of increased friction and risk. Such a dialogue would seek to establish an equilibrium in the relationship as it moves into a heightened state of strategic competition.
While Washington and Beijing might prefer to engage in competition without communication and hope that one side ultimately prevails, it is more likely that the two sides remain formidable competitors for the foreseeable future. The alternative to bounded competition over the long run would be greater confrontation with the potential for a conflict that would be in neither country’s interest, let alone the interests of the region or the world.