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On a U.S.-China Détente, Don’t Believe the Hype

Smiles and handshakes won’t erase Taiwan tensions.

Howard French
Howard French
Howard W. French
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Joe Biden shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping
U.S. President Joe Biden shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping
U.S. President Joe Biden shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, on Nov. 14. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

The most remarkable thing about the meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping on the eve of the just-completed G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, had nothing to do with the things reporters normally obsess over, like press conferences and official readouts.

Instead, it was the photographs. As the two men strode across a stage to meet each other for the first time in their respective tenures, they both smiled broadly and, from appearances, displayed what felt like an unaccustomed touch of genuine warmth.

The vibe continued as they clasped hands on stage and in some of the language that followed. Biden downplayed the possibility of a new Cold War and said he didn’t think that a Chinese attempt to take over Taiwan by force was imminent. Hinting at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Xi, for his part, expressed disapproval of the use of nuclear weapons in war and committed China to resume bilateral work with the United States to address the global climate crisis.

The most remarkable thing about the meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping on the eve of the just-completed G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, had nothing to do with the things reporters normally obsess over, like press conferences and official readouts.

Instead, it was the photographs. As the two men strode across a stage to meet each other for the first time in their respective tenures, they both smiled broadly and, from appearances, displayed what felt like an unaccustomed touch of genuine warmth.

The vibe continued as they clasped hands on stage and in some of the language that followed. Biden downplayed the possibility of a new Cold War and said he didn’t think that a Chinese attempt to take over Taiwan by force was imminent. Hinting at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Xi, for his part, expressed disapproval of the use of nuclear weapons in war and committed China to resume bilateral work with the United States to address the global climate crisis.

And in the days that followed, he kept projecting good vibes in other bilateral meetings, promising French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, that China would work with others to address the debts of poor nations, as well as hinting at repairing badly strained relations with Canberra in a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

The world seems to have liked what it saw. Stock markets globally, including China’s, were buoyed briefly, and the international media carried stories, replete with the smiling photos, that conveyed a sense of relief after a long run of mounting tension between the West and the world’s most populous nation.

It is not going out on a limb to say that there is no substitute for face-to-face diplomacy at the highest level, especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a period when it has been broadly lacking. With the G-20 barely over, it is worth asking what this all means and how long these good feelings can last. As much as the next person, I would love to believe that we have just witnessed a significant turning point, but I have my doubts.

As others have noted, a lot of Biden’s ebullience came from his Democratic Party’s strong performance in the U.S. midterm elections—all the more unusual because of Biden’s rather low approval ratings. Biden took strength from the electoral success in more than just a personal sense. Prevailing not only over Republicans in many contests but also against a number of candidates from that party who were among the country’s most committed election deniers enabled Biden to revive the “America’s back” theme so favored earlier in his presidency.

Without being too in-your-face about it, Biden even managed to tweak Xi on this score, proudly saying that the U.S. system reflected the will of the people—something that hasn’t been entirely clear over the last two years, or even in Arizona, where, as he spoke, doubts hung over whether the Republican candidate for governor would accept defeat at the polls.

The reason for Xi’s lighter mood is a bit harder to pinpoint given the opacity of China’s political system, but there are strong clues as to its origins nonetheless. He had just come from a virtual coronation by the Chinese Communist Party, which endorsed his rule without temporal limits and with no known rivals on the horizon. Despite the unscripted and mysterious contretemps involving the sudden and involuntary departure of his predecessor, Hu Jintao—who was bodily escorted from the Party Congress—Xi now cuts an extraordinarily imposing figure in his country, with the entire apparatus of politics and government bent to receive, interpret, and carry out his instructions.

Since former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin himself, leaders of Marxist-Leninist systems like China’s have repeatedly sought to banish factions. Xi seems to have arrived at this point in his own tenure, and that may finally have given him a kind of outward serenity that he had seldom projected before. A self-assurance as total as this, if it exists, may mean that he is now finally secure enough not only to sound assertive, which he has routinely done in the past, but also to radiate a more conciliatory disposition when it suits him, with no fear of a hard-line nationalist flank.

An interpretation like this raises its own question: Why does conciliation, if that’s what we’re seeing, suddenly suit him? Here, too, plausible answers come to mind. Put simply, China’s economy is in the worst shape that it has been in for a very long time, and uncertainty over its future is becoming the rule. Part of what we are seeing is a slowdown in growth predicted by some economists as inevitable for any large economy that had grown so fast for as long as China’s had.

China’s economic successes have been built on the pillars of enormous volumes of trade and investment, and with economic globalization slowing down and possibly in retreat and political tension with the West—and especially the United States—rising, both factors are at risk. Beyond the sheer quantity of investment, much of which China generates on its own, the country still needs both hard and soft technologies from the outside world, the latter of which means management methods and systems and is often underappreciated.

With the Biden administration blocking Chinese access to U.S. technology in sensitive sectors like semiconductors and generally encouraging U.S. companies to reverse previous offshoring of manufacturing to China, investment in China from advanced economies has recently come under pressure. As Gregory C. Allen, the director of the AI Governance Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in a recent report about the computer chip restrictions, “In weaponizing its dominant chokepoint positions in the global semiconductor value chain, the United States is exercising technological and geopolitical power on an incredible scale.”

Closer to home for Xi, China has boxed itself into a corner with its unusually stringent and prolonged anti-COVID-19 measures, which have become extremely unpopular in the country and have driven down economic growth. More prosaically, if no easier to resolve, Xi faces serious imbalances in his economy, in which most personal investment is bound up in an inflated and suddenly precarious-looking national property market.

The country has also embarked on what will be an extended and uncharted era of dramatic population decline and rapid aging, which will require enormous financial outlays from the state to meet the needs of retired and chronically ill people.

Given this combination of trying circumstances, it is not hard to understand why Xi might want to dial back the reputation for gruff assertiveness that he built during his first decade in power. The question is whether this can be reasonably expected to extend beyond summitry and into substance, especially in any lasting way.

Like many, I would like to see greater entente, but I am personally very skeptical. In the immediate term, Xi and China are still bound awkwardly to President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, with no easy way out. Xi has not been able to quite bring himself to say anything trenchant or judgmental about the invasion of Ukraine and its enormous human and material toll. At the G-20 summit, China even opposed language for a joint communique that would have called what is happening in Ukraine “war.”

This reveals something fundamental about China that smiles and polished diplomacy cannot obscure: China is a great authoritarian power and does not wish to be isolated or singled out on that basis. Since the era of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong, China has also understood itself as a geopolitical rival to the West—very much a separate pole in the world. This has been expressed more openly at some times than at others, but the underlying truth has been a constant.

These factors combine to make China eager to avoid seeing Russia go down in flames. Chinese strategists believe that Russia serves a valuable purpose running interference with the West—consuming much of the West’s bandwidth with Moscow’s adventurism—and warn that if Russia could no long play this role, Western pressure on China would ratchet up accordingly.

The biggest reason to doubt that the world is heading into a lasting era of amity and entente between the United States and China, though, can be found in Chinese statements made during this week’s meeting between leaders of the two countries and can be summed up in one word: Taiwan. Xi told Biden that Taiwan is “at the very core of China’s core interests,” and that is not a typo.

Whatever new degree of personal leeway and discretion Xi may have earned over security and foreign-policy matters as a result of the Communist Party’s strong affirmation of his rule, this language creates its own expectations and pressures. This means that Xi will feel obliged to deliver something tangible on Taiwan before he eventually relinquishes power—perhaps quite soon.

During Biden’s two years in office, the United States government and military generally, and Biden himself personally, have reflected a sense of growing concern about the prospect of a Chinese attempt to take over Taiwan by force. On several occasions, Biden has taken the unusual step of warning that the United States would intervene militarily to defend Taiwan from Chinese attack. Serious measures are now underway in Washington to arm and prepare Taiwan for just such a contingency, with both Republicans and Democrats in Congress even pushing to pay for expensive new armaments for Taiwan. China will almost certainly treat this as a provocation.

It is hard to say what the best option is for the United States on Taiwan if Washington’s goal is to avert war on the island in such a way that would allow its people to maintain their democratic way of life. The present course seems to favor open warnings to China and the stockpiling of weapons in Taiwan so that it isn’t caught as unprepared as Ukraine was if war breaks out. Another course might favor quiet diplomacy and private reassurances to one side or the other while Washington shores up unity among its allies.

One way or another, though, China and the United States seem to be on a collision course over the future of Taiwan, and the recent smiles and handshakes have done little to change that.

Howard W. French is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a longtime foreign correspondent. His latest book is Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War. Twitter: @hofrench

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