U.S. President Joe Biden sits down with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Nov. 15, 2023, in the first head-to-head talks between the leaders of the world’s two biggest economies in over a year.
During that time, relations between the two countries have not been their best – a spat over a purported spy balloon over American airspace in February only added to a list of grievances that includes Biden’s comments over Taiwan, Beijing’s support of Russia, confrontations in the South China Sea and more generally a competition for influence and trade around the world.
Yet, going into the meeting – which takes place on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in the San Francisco Bay Area – there has been talk of trying to put the U.S.-China relationship on a better track. The White House has indicated that strengthening communication and managing competition will be the key thing to watch; Xi recently commented that there were “a thousand reasons to improve China-U.S. relations, but not one reason to ruin them.”
But how much is achievable? Recent articles from The Conversation’s archive provide insight and background over what is likely to be on the agenda – and the obstacles to improving ties.
1. Engagement, decoupling or derisking?
The meeting comes after a hardening stance against China in Washington – and with a general election just a year away, political rhetoric on China is likely to remain robust.
Michael Beckley, an expert on U.S.-China relations at Tufts University, saw evidence of a more hawkish China policy on display in March when a bipartisan House committee on China held its inaugural meeting.
“What was abundantly clear from the lawmakers was the message that the era of engagement with China is long past its sell-by date,” wrote Beckley, adding: “Engagement had been the policy of successive government from Nixon’s landmark visit to China in 1972 onward. But there was a general acceptance among committee members that the policy is outdated and that it is time to adopt if not outright containment then certainly a more competitive policy.”
A key part of that new policy would involve a more robust stance on confronting China’s military posturing in East Asia.
It also included what Beckley described as “selective decoupling,” or the disentangling of certain technology and economic interests. The buzzword being thrown around in foreign policy circles lately is “derisking,” but it alludes to the same thing: U.S. entities limiting their exposure to China.
2. War (of words) over Taiwan
So what has prompted the worsening relations between China and the U.S.? For starters, there is the ongoing tension over Taiwan.
For the best part of 40 years, U.S. diplomatic relations with the island have been governed by the “one China policy” – through which Washington recognizes the People’s Republic of China and acknowledges that Beijing’s position remains that Taiwan is part of China. Prior to 1979, the U.S. recognized the government of Taiwan as “China.”
But in recent years, Beijing has caught wind of subtle changes in the U.S. over the issue. In May 2022, Biden suggested he would intervene “militarily” should China ever invade Taiwan. This would break a long-standing policy of ambiguity over what the U.S. would do in such an event. The White House later walked back the comments, suggesting that it didn’t represent a change. But it wasn’t the first time that Biden has made such a remark, noted Meredith Oyen, an expert on U.S. Taiwan relations at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
“I think it is clear at this point that Biden’s interpretation of the Taiwan Relations Act – which since 1979 has set out the parameters of U.S. policy on the island – is that it allows for a U.S. military response should China invade. And despite White House claims to the contrary, I believe that does represent a departure from the long-standing policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ on Taiwan,” she wrote.
3. Navigating the South China Sea
Most experts are of a mind that an invasion of Taiwan isn’t on Beijing’s immediate agenda – or in its interests. But that doesn’t mean that a military confrontation isn’t possible.
“If a war between China and the U.S. is going to happen, I believe the South China Sea is likely to be a major theater, with Chinese aggression toward Taiwan the spark,” wrote Krista Wiegand, a scholar of East Asian security and maritime disputes at the University of Tennessee.
The South China Sea – which is home to large reserves of oil and gas as well as billions of dollars’ worth of fisheries – has become a constant cause of tension between Beijing and a host of East and Southeast Asian nations, including U.S. allies the Philippines and Japan.