Column: Biden and Xi hope to stabilize U.S.-China ties. Odds are against them

Xi Jinping and Joe Biden holding up T-shirts as students watch. Biden's says "Fostering goodwill between America & China."
Then-Vice President Joe Biden and Xi Jinping, vice president of China at the time, show T-shirts with goodwill messages, given to them by students during a 2012 visit to the International Studies Learning Center in South Gate.
(Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)

President Biden is scheduled to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping this week on the Indonesian island of Bali, their first in-person summit since Biden arrived in the White House.

The stakes are always high at superpower summits, and this one is no exception. After months of near-collisions over Taiwan, both governments appear to want to lower the temperature. Another good sign: Earlier this month, Xi publicly admonished his ally Vladimir Putin to stop threatening Ukraine with Russian nuclear weapons.

But other grounds for optimism are few. U.S. officials are carefully keeping expectations low; their main goal, one aide said last week, is merely “to build a floor under the relationship.” Even that modest outcome isn’t guaranteed.


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“The U.S. side wants to demonstrate that [the two countries] are not locked in a downward spiral,” said Evan Medeiros, a former China advisor to President Obama. “I think both sides are going to be able to say the right things to stabilize the relationship, but none of the underlying issues are going to be solved.”

U.S.-China summits once tried to focus on areas where the two sides could cooperate, such as climate change and North Korea. But those dreams of collaboration are mostly a memory now: As China’s economic and military power has grown, the two countries have increasingly seen each other as threats.

Two especially difficult issues stand in the way of progress.

One is familiar — the standoff over Taiwan, the U.S.-backed island that China claims as part of its national territory. The other is newer: A U.S. ban on sales of advanced technology to Beijing has touched off a “semiconductor war.”

The United States and China have long been at loggerheads over Taiwan, but over the last year, tensions have grown sharper. China has escalated its military incursions in the waters and airspace around the island. Biden has responded by declaring that if Taiwan is attacked, the United States will defend it with military force — toughening a U.S. policy that was once ambiguous.


The standoff could easily turn more dangerous. Taiwan’s next presidential election campaign begins next year, and some candidates are expected to call for a formal declaration of independence — a move that China has said would cross an impermissible “red line.”

If Republicans take over in the U.S. House of Representatives as expected, they are likely to push for tougher pro-Taiwan policies, including increased military sales to the island. Keeping this precarious standoff from sliding toward war won’t be easy.

The semiconductor war is a new, more intense version of an old problem — the U.S. complaint that China steals American technology and uses it to modernize Chinese military hardware.

Last month, after years of largely ineffectual regulation, the Biden administration imposed sweeping new limits on the sale of advanced semiconductors to China — a step aimed explicitly at a core component of Xi’s strategy for speeding Beijing’s rise as a scientific, economic and military competitor.

China has responded with angry protests, calling the U.S. export controls the equivalent of an economic blockade. But it has not retaliated with any equivalent trade measures; experts suspect Xi does not want to take any actions that would risk harming the sputtering Chinese economy.

“My guess is that Xi will raise that issue at the summit,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund, a U.S. think tank. “He’ll say that it’s evidence that the U.S. is pursuing a strategy of containment against China. … But I don’t think there’s any way forward on it. If anything, the administration wants to use the same tool in areas beyond semiconductors.”

U.S. officials say they still hope to restart talks with China on areas where the two countries might be able to cooperate, like food security in the developing world or climate change.

At a more basic level, they hope to revive U.S. ideas for “confidence-building measures” including a long-stalled proposal for a “hot line” communications link between the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii and China’s Eastern Command.

But even those modest steps don’t look attainable this week.

“The Chinese aren’t interested,” Glaser said.

“Opening communications channels with China doesn’t really solve other problems,” Medeiros added. “It’s unlikely to shift the trajectory [of the relationship], which is toward intensified competition.”

In the tradition of superpower summits, Biden and Xi doubtless hope to declare their meeting a success — if only by the hard-to-measure standard of stabilizing U.S.-China relations.

Even if they do, the two countries still face far more opportunities for conflict than cooperation. The U.S.-China problem is likely to get worse before it gets better.