Biden and Xi discussed stabilising US-China relations, covering Taiwan, TikTok, tariffs, and support for Russia in a 105-minute call, indicating a thaw in relations amid deep-seated mistrust.

Biden and Xi discussed stabilising US-China relations, covering Taiwan, TikTok, tariffs, and support for Russia in a 105-minute call, indicating a thaw in relations amid deep-seated mistrust.

US President, Joe Biden, and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jingping, talked on the phone this week for the first time since meeting in November. While the call signals both sides’ interest in stabilising their relationship, it also underscores the significant international, and national challenges, that Beijing and Washington face.

Xi and Biden are believed to have covered Taiwan, the possible US TikTok ban, tariffs and Chinese support for Russia, in the 105 minute call.

This phone call builds on the agreement between the two presidents at their face-to-face meeting in San Francisco last November to keep channels of communication open. It also indicates a potential return to the more frequent direct interactions of 2021 and 2022, and a slight thawing of the relationship between the two countries.

Together with an uptick of interactions among senior officials, the call is part of what appears to be a rediscovery of the art of diplomacy. Recent significant meetings include those of US national security advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, respectively, with the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, in Bangkok at the end of January and in Munich in February, as well as a forthcoming trip of US Treasury secretary Janet Yellen to Beijing.

Both the Chinese and US statements have emphasised the “candid and constructive” nature of the call.

The candour is obvious from the many areas of disagreement between them, from trade tariffs to the future status of Taiwan, to name but two. What is more constructive in the relationship now is that Beijing and Washington appear to be committed to leave the February 2023 weather balloon incident behind them and prioritise face-to-face over megaphone diplomacy. How far this will mend a relationship that is still characterised by deep distrust over each side’s ultimate goals, however, is not clear.

One of the biggest issues for China is the set of tariffs that the US has placed on Chinese goods, as well as US concerns about security issues linked to Chinese technology. Donald Trump began an unprecedented trade war against China by imposing a 25% tariff on Chinese imports in 2018, when he was president. These measures, Beijing suspects, are tools the US is using to “suppress China’s trade and technology development”.

Biden, whose hands are partly tied by strong and bipartisan anti-Chinese sentiment in the US Congress, will have done little to allay Xi’s concerns, when he pointed out “that the United States will continue to take necessary actions to prevent advanced U.S. technologies from being used to undermine … national security, without unduly limiting trade and investment”. Trump, for his part, is promising to go even further if re-elected.

Flashpoint Taiwan

There is no obvious change in Washington’s Taiwan policy, but neither is there in the importance that Beijing attaches to the issue. According to the Chinese statement on the Biden-Xi phone call: “The Taiwan question is the first red line that must not be crossed in China-U.S. relations.” Both sides’ positions will be tested in the coming months, with the inauguration of Taiwan’s new president in May.

Another significant factor is the strengthening of US military relations with its partners in Aukus, the tripartite security partnership between the US, Australia and the UK. The US also sees Japan and the Philipines as regional allies, who may play a part in the volatile security situation in the Taiwan Strait and the Indo-Pacific more broadly.

Common international ground?

Though undoubtedly important, the bilateral dimension is not the only aspect of the US-China relationship. Given the upending of the existing international order – first and foremost by the war in Ukraine and now by the escalating conflict across the Middle East – Washington and Beijing have a whole host of other potential flashpoints on their agenda which they will need to manage carefully.

North Korea’s increasing belligerence is clearly a concern for the US and its allies in Asia. And while China may see Pyongyang as useful leverage against military encirclement, a full-blown confrontation on the Korean peninsula is unlikely to be in China’s interest. Beijing’s more nuanced approach to the issue became apparent at the end of March when it abstained from a resolution to extend sanctions against North Korea, while Russia vetoed the US draft resolution on the issue.

Neither Washington nor Beijing are likely to be interested in yet further escalation in the Middle East. While China, together with Russia, vetoed an earlier US-sponsored resolution on a ceasefire for Gaza on March 22 2024, a subsequent vote three days later ended with China voting in favour and the US abstaining. This does not by any means indicate a convergence of interests between Washington and Beijing, but it signals that there is a bargaining space in which the two powers could find enough common ground between them to manage crises through existing international institutions like the United Nations.

Yet, there are likely limits to a more cooperative approach by Beijing and Washington to international security. This may be less about to their own desires but more about their ability to constrain allies. The recent Israeli attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus is as likely to be a test case in this regard as is Russia’s continuing aggression in Ukraine. The Biden administration has so far proven unwilling, and perhaps unable, to use its full leverage over Israel. Xi, in turn, has been unwilling to pressure Putin and is unlikely to allow Russia to be humiliated in Ukraine.

For the foreseeable future, this means that Beijing and Washington will, at best, be able to approach their shared, but not wholly overlapping interests in international security, by managing instability. If they simultaneously find a way not to let their bilateral disagreements escalate into conflict, there is every chance that this most consequential relationship will not fall victim to the Thucydides trap of an inevitable military confrontation.



▪ This piece was originally published in The Conversation and re-published in PUBLIC SQUARE UK on 4 April 2024. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
Cover: Shutterstock/Bigc Studio.

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