Xi-Biden meeting seen as putting relations back on course, even as issues remain unresolved

Perhaps just shaking hands and sitting down together can be enough sometimes

Christopher Bodeen
Thursday 16 November 2023 09:28 GMT
Biden's meeting with Xi offers opportunity to reset US-China relations

Perhaps just shaking hands and sitting down together can be enough sometimes.

At their meeting Wednesday, U.S. President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping didn't resolve any of the major geopolitical issues dividing the world's two largest economies and chief rivals for influence, particularly among developing nations.

But it did seem to put a floor beneath a relationship that had been in free-fall over issues from trade to investment to U.S. support for Taiwan, along with human rights in regions from Tibet to Sichuan and the Asian financial hub of Hong Kong, which China administers as a semi-autonomous region while gutting its civil liberties handed over from the former British administration.

The two leaders spent four hours together at a northern California country estate, holding meetings, lunching and taking a garden stroll that seemed intent on showing the world that while they are global competitors they’re not locked in a winner-take-all faceoff.

“Planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed,” Xi told Biden.

Taiwan's Foreign Ministry appeared to welcome the warming of relations, noting the U.S. had again laid down the bottom line that China must use peaceful means in dealing with the island it claims as its own territory.

Taiwan “affirms Biden's insistence that there can be no unilateral changes in the status quo in the Taiwan Strait and that differences must be worked out peacefully," spokesperson Jeff Liu said.

"We express our affirmation and welcome for President Biden again making use of the venue of a meeting with the leader of China to again openly press the strict U.S. position insisting on peace in the Taiwan Strait," Liu said.

South Koreans watched the meeting with a mixture of hope and skepticism, wondering whether the talks would meaningfully soften an intense rivalry that has left Seoul squeezed between its crucial military and diplomatic ally the U.S. and largest trade partner China.

Facing growing North Korean nuclear threats, South Korea has been primarily focused on strengthening its security in conjunction with its alliance with the United States and expressed frustration over Beijing’s unwillingness at the U.N. Security Council to back stronger sanctions and pressure on Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile programs.

There’s growing concern in Seoul about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s efforts to boost the visibility of his partnerships with Beijing and Moscow as he tries to break out of diplomatic isolation and make Pyongyang part of a unified front against Washington.

But South Korea’s heavy reliance on computer chips and other technology products for jobs and exports has also created unease about broadening U.S.-China tensions that also include a trade war over technology.

The Biden administration’s steps since last year to restrict the sales of advanced chip technologies to China set off furious lobbying by the South Koreans to minimize the impact on South Korean semiconductor makers like Samsung and SK Hynix. Seoul breathed a sigh of relief when Washington decided last month to allow those companies to send chipmaking equipment to their Chinese plants without special approvals.

In an editorial on Thursday, South Korea’s Kookmin Ilbo newspaper said a meaningful improvement in U.S.-China relations would have major consequences to global supply chains and the “composition of the new Cold War between North Korea-China-Russia and South Korea-U.S.-Japan.”

Japanese officials are more focused on setting up a meeting between Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Xi and finding ways to resolve Beijing’s ban on Japanese seafood resulting from the release of treated water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Kishida told reporters before his departure early Wednesday that possible talks with Xi have not been decided at this point.

“But there is no change to our basic policy of maintaining a constructive and stable Japan-China relationship by mutual effort,” he said. “We plan to have various forms of communication.”

Along with lingering anti-Japan sentiment in China used to promote loyalty to the ruling Communist Party, Tokyo and Beijing have feuded over ownership of unpopulated East China Sea islands and underwater mineral deposits.

All of those disputes, particularly China's aggressive claim to ownership of virtually the entire strategically vital South China Sea, have been brought into sharp relief by China's economic slowdown since it lifted draconian anti-pandemic restrictions late last year.

Madoka Fukuda, a professor of international politics and China studies at Hosei University in Tokyo, said China’s primary intention is to seek an easing of trade restrictions by the United States on cutting-edge technology to re-energize the economy.

China is also portraying the Xi-Biden talks to show its own people and the rest of the world that China is a global power ranking alongside the United States, she said.

“China is stressing to its own people that the country is a global power that serves an important role in the international community, prompting their nationalism at home,” she said.

Despite all that, differences on the South China Sea and security in the Taiwan Strait, and over Beijing's backing of Russia's war on Ukraine and its support for the Palestinian cause and American foes such as Iran will remain unchanged, she said.

China's Foreign Ministry on Thursday also registered its objections to Biden's repeated references to Xi as a “dictator.”

“Such a remark is extremely wrong and is irresponsible political manipulation," spokesperson Mao Ning said. “It needs to be pointed out that there have always been people with ill intentions who try to sow discord and undermine the China-U.S. relations."

More importantly, Fukuda said, the resumption of military-to-military concepts is "meaningful as a guardrail to prevent accidental encounters.”

“The United States places importance on creating a guardrail, and China, in responding to such a dialogue, is expected to ask for an easing of trade restrictions,” Fukuda said on TBS radio.

In Beijing, residents said they hoped for a relaxing of tensions with the U.S., where tens of thousands of Chinese students travel to study each year and an untold number have settled down for work.

“I feel that China-U.S. relations have eased, and maybe the next step will be cooperation,” said Beijing firefighter Xu Jiaguang, 31. The meeting between the two leaders will be "a great help,” Xu said, echoing Biden's comments that only by sitting face-to-face can potential adversaries find common ground.

Poor relations between China and the U.S. have the “biggest impact on ordinary people,” said Gao Kexin, 23, a Beijing hospital worker.

"I hope the relationship can be eased, so that people can live a happier life,” Gao said.

Overall, expectations for the first meeting between the leaders in roughly a year were low and it remains to be seen whether the momentum for improvement in bilateral ties can be maintained, wrote Dimitar Gueorguiev, director of Chinese studies at Syracuse University in New York State.

“We are still in the middle of U.S.-China relations winter. Though there is reason to celebrate the current thaw, we should be prepared for a cold front to come in soon,” Gueorguiev wrote.


Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and video producer Caroline Chen in Beijing contributed to this report.

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