Inflection points in global politics don’t often announce themselves in advance. The complex and dangerous relationship between China and the United States may reach a critical point Monday when President Biden and Xi Jinping hold a .virtual summit meeting HTML1. For almost a decade, the superpowers have been in constant conflict as China’s assertiveness has led to a collision with the United States. The frictions flared under President Obama’s administration after Xi, a ambitious nationalist, was elected to power in Beijing. President Trump sharpened the conflict, imposing large tariffs on Chinese goods and accusing Xi’s government of unleashing the COVID-19 pandemic.
When Biden came to office, many in both countries expected tensions to ease — but the new president kept Trump’s tariffs in place and made it clear that he wanted to negotiate new rules to constrain China’s behavior.
In March, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken met with Yang Jiechi, Chinese foreign policy chief Yang Jiechi. They began by a bitter trade involving accusations about trade and human rights.
Months of friction followed. Officials from the United States criticized China’s bullying of smaller countries in Asia and its suppression of its Muslim Uyghur minority. China’s air force increased sorties close to Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its territory. The U.S., Britain, and Canada sent warships through Taiwan Strait in an act of allies force.
The U.S. commander in the Pacific warned that China might attack Taiwan by 2027; Biden said he had an obligation to help the island defend itself.
Pentagon officials warned that China was accelerating its military buildup, putting it on pace to quadruple its nuclear weapons to 1,000 warheads by 2030.
The United States strengthened its alliances in Asia, including a deal to supply nuclear-powered submarines to Australia as part of a new military pact dubbed AUKUS. It seemed like an inexorable march towards conflict.
Biden aides say some of the friction was necessary. It was important, national security advisor Jake Sullivan said last week, to “show that China’s efforts at pushing other [countries] around will not ultimately be successful.”
The confrontation offered Biden one more benefit: It helped win bipartisan support in Congress for two parts of his domestic economic program, his $1.2-trillion infrastructure bill and a $250-billion technology spending measure that quickly became known as the “China bill.”
His pitch wasn’t subtle.
“If they don’t move, they’re going eat our lunch,” Biden told senators in February. He was referring to Beijing’s competition.
Soon, some members of Congress were pushing the president and the administration to get even tougher on China, especially in regard to Taiwan. It looked as though the administration had fallen into the tale of the sorcerer’s apprentice. While it had established a new, more hawkish consensus regarding China, the anti-Beijing fervor was rapidly spiralling out of control.
“They are digging a hole that’s going to be difficult to get out of,” a former top official in the Obama administration told me. “If this becomes a zero-sum scenario, in which one side must win and the other side must lose, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy,” a former top official in Obama’s administration told me. It would lead to a march towards war.
By September Biden and his aides had stopped digging.
“We don’t want a Cold War, or a world that is divided into rigid blocks,” the president said to the United Nations.
All the United States wants, Sullivan said last week, is “to set the terms for an effective and healthy competition … with guardrails and risk-reduction measures in place to ensure that things don’t veer off into conflict.”
The U.S. hopes it can cooperate with China on climate change, nuclear proliferation and other issues, he added.
It was a positive sign that the United States and China agreed to cooperate on climate change, nuclear proliferation and other issues at the U.N. conference in Scotland last week. Although the plan was limited, it had a significant impact and spared both Xi Jinping and Biden any potential blame if the summit fell apart.
This week’s meeting between the two presidents, their first full-scale summit, could cover a long list of issues: nuclear proliferation, trade talks, easing military tensions in the Taiwan Strait, even visa regulations. But administration officials are careful to set the bar low.
The aim, a Biden aide told me, is “to maintain open channels of communication, make clear U.S. intentions and priorities, and responsibly manage the competition between our countries…. This is about setting the terms of an effective competition.”
In other words, to borrow a term from the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the goal is to make “peaceful coexistence” possible between two incompatible governments.
Even that won’t be easy. It is evident from the frictions that have developed over the past decade.
“Stiff competition” between economic, diplomatic and nuclear superpowers won’t ever be simple to manage, and one summit meeting isn’t going to end their disagreements. It can start the process of defusing their differences, which would be a significant step.