China Brief

A weekly digest of the stories you should be following in China, plus exclusive analysis. Delivered Wednesday.

Did the Xi-Biden Summit Cool Tensions?

Taiwan remains the biggest challenge to the U.S.-China relationship.

Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
James Palmer
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands as they meet on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, on Nov. 14.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands as they meet on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, on Nov. 14.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands as they meet on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, on Nov. 14. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights in this week’s abbreviated edition: Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden hold their first face-to-face meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, and China makes subtle changes to its restrictive COVID-19 policy.

If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights in this week’s abbreviated edition: Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden hold their first face-to-face meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, and China makes subtle changes to its restrictive COVID-19 policy.

If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.


Reading the Xi-Biden Summit

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in person on Monday on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia. Their long-awaited discussion—the first between the two leaders since Biden became president—lasted for around three hours. But while it appeared surprisingly genial, the meeting didn’t reflect a significant easing of tensions.

Xi and Biden smiled and shook hands, a far cry from the stern body language Xi has adopted with some other leaders, such as former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The emphasis on peace from both the U.S. and Chinese readouts seemed like a throwback to the less tense days of the early 2000s. And the two sides agreed to future working groups on some key issues, which could mean a return to pre-pandemic levels of contact and help avert disastrous misunderstandings.

Overall though, I wouldn’t put too much weight on such a short meeting. Pro-engagement analysts praised the tone of the meeting, but Chinese official language and state media show no sign of reconciliation toward the United States, instead continuing to platform conspiracy theories and anti-NATO rhetoric. China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats who have done such damage to the U.S.-China relationship remain in place; if that changes after the meeting, it could make a real difference.

Taiwan remains the biggest single challenge to the U.S.-China relationship, as shown by China’s reaction to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei this year. Xi’s language during the meeting with Biden was as unwavering as ever, describing peace in the Taiwan Strait and putative Taiwanese independence “as irreconcilable as water and fire.”

It’s unlikely that there will be any reconciliation on the issue. Beijing’s demand that Washington stick to an interpretation of the “One China” principle—that Taiwan is part of mainland China—is impossible because the United States never agreed. And China can’t give an inch without fear of nationalist backlash. In comments after the meeting, Biden did at least pour cold water on the idea that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is imminent.

The different readouts from the two sides are telling. The Chinese version speaks of Biden guaranteeing “five nos,” mostly related to Taiwan, such as “no Taiwanese independence” and  “no intention of challenging” China. (The Chinese Communist Party loves phrases like “three maybes” or “six guarantees.”) This language was absent from the U.S. version. Although Biden may have said such things, the Chinese interpretation seems like an effort to lock down language that could be used to accuse the United States of breaking promises in the future.

Meanwhile, the U.S. readout said Xi spoke against the use of nuclear weapons or threats in Ukraine—information missing from the Chinese account, which speaks generally about peace but doesn’t mention the issue of Russia’s war in Ukraine directly.

What are the other main takeaways from the G-20 summit? Join FP Live on Thursday, Nov. 17, for a summit debrief with Edward Alden, an FP columnist and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; Lynn Kuok, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies; and Matthew Kroenig, an FP columnist and deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.



COVID-19 Policy Relaxations—and Protests 

China’s zero-COVID policy received some small but meaningful reductions last week. The changes still don’t point to Beijing lifting the approach but rather returning the state of affairs back to how it was at the start of the year before a rash of outbreaks led to further restrictions. The new measures include a small cut in quarantine times, an end to quarantines for second-degree close contacts of positive cases (a very unpopular policy), and an end to flight bans that had shut down air traffic in much of the country.

In announcing the changes, the government emphasized that it was not ending the policy but optimizing it, although that could be political cover. Many cities already seem to be pulling back on intrusive and costly mass testing, once a main tool of prevention. Relatively mild measures in Shijiazhuang drew attention and praise. But my contacts in Beijing said they had no intention of changing their behavior until policy was clearer, perhaps because they fear the mass detentions and lockdowns that have come to mark the capital’s daily life.

Meanwhile, the southern metropolis of Guangzhou is in the middle of one of China’s largest outbreaks yet, now reporting more than 5,000 new cases a day. The local government reintroduced mass testing last week, but the restrictive measures have sparked angry protests. With COVID-19 cases still climbing across the country, the political leadership is in a bind: Weakening policy could cause a long-feared full-scale outbreak, but maintaining it is unsustainable.

As ever, it’s possible that a full-scale containment failure could cause the government to accept—if not publicly acknowledge—the defeat of the zero-COVID policy and switch to a more care-focused approach. But I think uncertainty will continue at least through the winter.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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