Can Xi and Biden Repair U.S.-China Ties?
Their meeting in San Francisco will reportedly lead to pledges on areas of mutual concern, as tensions remain high.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden hold their first meeting in a year in San Francisco, civil war in Myanmar is destabilizing the country’s border with China, and David Cameron’s new post as British foreign secretary raises concerns about U.K. policy on China.
Xi and Biden to Meet in San Francisco
Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden are set for their first meeting in a year on Wednesday on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco. The talks come after months of tensions and a concerted diplomatic push by the Biden administration to repair U.S.-China ties. What’s likely to come out of the meetings?
The big win for Biden seems to be a reported deal on the fentanyl trade, with China promising a crackdown on producers of precursor chemicals in return for the United States lifting sanctions on China’s forensic police institute, which manages some surveillance operations in Xinjiang. Beijing has been hostile toward diplomatic efforts on the fentanyl trade. But ending the police sanctions would aid a major Chinese diplomatic goal: chipping away at sanctions over state atrocities in Xinjiang.
Meanwhile, China is reportedly asking the United States to state that it opposes Taiwan’s independence, rather than its current position—that it “[does] not support” independence. The issue is a non-starter, suggesting that Xi doesn’t have a strong read on Biden. The U.S. president has an expressed preference for small democratic states that he sees as under threat, whether Ukraine, Israel, or Taiwan; he is given to so-called gaffes that come close to outright support for Taiwanese independence, in contrast to long-term U.S. policy.
Beijing may be trying to push back on Biden’s support for Taipei, but making an impossible ask could alienate the U.S. president from the start. The best hope is that China is focused on language around Taiwan in lieu of actually taking concrete strategic steps against the self-ruled island—a political sop to the endlessly deferred goal of reunification, peaceful or otherwise.
More promising for the two leaders’ talks is a potential pledge to avoid developing autonomous weapons. That’s hopeful because it suggests a focus on a genuine area of mutual concern, rather than a tussle over mutually incompatible positions: Neither China nor the United States wants a war by accident, such as one sparked by artificial intelligence systems accidentally identifying the other’s military as a threat when they meet at sea or in the air. Both sides are already invested in AI weapons systems, although much remains hypothetical.
The closest that China has come to superpower war since the fight with the United States in Korea is the standoff with the Soviet Union in 1969 after border clashes. As a result, Xi’s generation grew up with a surprisingly strong fear of nuclear war. China can afford the occasional skirmish with India, on their disputed Himalayan border, but not the possibility of either side sinking a warship by mistake.
In San Francisco, Xi seems keen to woo business leaders, who often have a boundless optimism in the possibilities of the Chinese market. Tickets for dinner with the Chinese leader, co-hosted by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations and the US-China Business Council, are $2,000 a head, or $40,000 for eight seats and a guaranteed place at Xi’s table, where the leader will presumably aim to reassure his guests in the hope of reversing plunging foreign investment in China, which just registered its first-ever quarterly deficit.
The best news for the U.S.-China relationship may come not from the leadership but from the Chinese public. The United States has seen a remarkable rise in popularity in polling in the last year, despite the Chinese state media’s relentless portrayal of Washington as the source of all global evil (a propaganda line put on hold at least for this week’s meetings). Accurate polling is hard to come by in China, but what the numbers may reflect is displaced discontent with Xi’s leadership.
After beating the drum about the United States being an enemy for so long, saying otherwise may be a way of covertly going against the party line. Whatever the cause, there is no equivalent in U.S. polling, where China remains very unpopular.
What We’re Following
China-Myanmar border. Civil war in Myanmar has destabilized the country’s border with China in recent months, pushing Beijing to demand that the ruling junta—which took power in a 2021 coup—take action. But the region is spinning out of the Myanmar military’s control. The northern part of the country is controlled by a patchwork of ethnic militias, and an anti-government offensive by an alliance in the region may be a turning point for the country’s resistance.
The Chinese government and the People’s Liberation Army have long-standing relationships with the armed groups on the other side of the border. Since the coup, Beijing has generally supported the junta, but it has backed off this support since late last year. Although there are lobbyists for the junta—such as Yunnan provincial leaders who maintain close business ties to the Myanmar military—the Chinese leadership seems unhappy with its failure to stabilize the country.
A particular point of Chinese anger is the junta’s failure to control booming telecommunication fraud operations based in Myanmar that both target Chinese citizens and make use of forced labor, often luring Chinese speakers under false pretenses. Beijing has repeatedly raised the issue this year. This summer saw a spate of Chinese movies where people fall victim to gangs in thinly veiled versions of Myanmar, to the irritation of the junta, while a Chinese police initiative recently brought back more than 2,000 Chinese citizens from northern Myanmar.
U.K.-China turnaround? Former British Prime Minister David Cameron, who promised a “golden age” of U.K.-China-relations in 2015, has returned to government as U.K. foreign secretary. His Beijing-friendly record has drawn criticism. As recently as last month, Cameron was promoting Chinese interests in the Indo-Pacific, and earlier this year, U.K. intelligence agencies singled out his appointment as vice chair of a China-U.K. investment fund as part of a bid for influence by Beijing.
To be sure, former European leaders lobbying on behalf of foreign autocrats is not uncommon, with honorable exceptions such as another former British prime minister, Gordon Brown. And although the British foreign secretary post was once typically held by the same person for a few years, the average time in office for the post since 2018 has been less than one year. Cameron was appointed as a peer to hold the office, giving him a lifetime voice in Parliament’s second chamber.
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Tech and Business
Civil service competition. Graduating Chinese students continue to show a strong preference for the state sector, with 64 percent selecting it over private enterprise. Graduates who are highly educated, male, or from high-status family backgrounds are particularly likely to go into government jobs. China’s civil service examinations, held in late November, have had another record-breaking year, with 2.6 million applicants—roughly 66 per job available.
State jobs were traditionally termed “iron rice bowls”—referring to the guaranteed and secure income that lacks the vicissitudes of the private sector. That certainty is especially tempting now after the insecurity of a faltering economy and the trauma of COVID-19 shutdowns, even given the long-running crackdown on corruption and other perks among state employees.
Economic stumbles. China’s October economic data is reportedly not promising, with GDP growth still weak nearly a year after the end of COVID-19 lockdowns. Credit growth is expanding—but it’s largely from government loans, with households still reluctant to borrow. Even the Golden Week holiday last month seems to have failed to spur a hoped-for spending boom.
At some level, this data may just reflect a new normal, especially given the sharp decline in real estate demand. But it will take a long time for Chinese public expectations of economic growth to adjust after a four-decade boom. On the ground, the effects of the slowdown may be regionalized: China’s long-suffering northeast, once the country’s industrial heartland, has been particularly hard-hit.
James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer
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