First step to ease tension between Beijing and Washington

US President Joe Biden met with Chinese President Xi Jinping held a meeting in the US this week. Picture: Brendan Smialowski/AFP

US President Joe Biden met with Chinese President Xi Jinping held a meeting in the US this week. Picture: Brendan Smialowski/AFP

Published Nov 19, 2023


David Monyae

Chinese President Xi Jinping touched down in the United States this week for a meeting with his counterpart, President Joe Biden and to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) summit. This was Xi’s first visit to the US since 2017 when he met with former President Donald Trump.

The bilateral summit came amid escalating tensions between the world’s two biggest economies and military powers over a range of issues including trade, climate change, security, technology, and human rights.

The US and China have been engaged in a trade war since 2018 which saw the US imposing significant tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of US imports from China.

China also retaliated by imposing tariffs on US imports. The Biden administration has largely maintained Trump’s restrictions on Chinese imports. Biden has gone further to pass a sweeping legislation that could potentially annihilate China’s technological capabilities.

The new legislation bans the export of US-made semi-conductors, chip manufacturing equipment, chip design software and the components of manufacturing equipment made in the US. The restrictions apply not only to American enterprises but all the world’s leading chip manufacturing companies that depend on US technology.

China is the world’s largest importer of semi-conductors which are at the centre of cutting-edge technologies which Beijing hoped would be the new engine of economic growth in China. The US ban would likely stretch the gap in artificial intelligence capabilities between China and the US with serious implications for China’s military capabilities.

In August 2022, tensions between the two superpowers escalated further when China cut off all high-level military communication with the US in protest at former US House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. China saw this as US’ support for Taiwan independence which it claims to be its territory. The re-incorporation of Taiwan into China is an important part of Xi’s Chinese Dream.

The US has also complained about China’s alleged aggressive military posture in the South and East China Seas and what it has labelled China’s bullying of small countries in East Asia. On the other hand, China has condemned the US activities in Asia Pacific where the Washington has formed security alliances such as the Quadrilateral Security Initiative with India, Japan, and Australia. Beijing is of the view that these moves are intended to contain and suppress China’s growth.

In February, the US shot down what it alleged to be a spy balloon flying over the its airspace apparently used by China to collect intelligence. China claimed that the object was simply a weather balloon that had blown off course by the wind. This incident demonstrated the high level of paranoia and mistrust existing between theses world’s superpowers. The US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, even cancelled his scheduled trip to China as a result of the balloon saga.

Moreover, the US and China have differed on their positions on the Russia-Ukraine and the Israel-Palestine conflicts. China has refused to join the US-led sanctions bandwagon against Russia that is meant to isolate Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine and Beijing has not issued a condemnation of Russia’s actions. As a matter of fact, Beijing’s relations with Russia have grown closer economically and diplomatically. The two countries’ contrasting positions on these issues is testament to the fundamental divergence of their visions for the future of global order.

Therefore, this bilateral summit in the US could not have come soon enough as it provides these two countries an opportunity to close ranks and avert further fallout which would have a devastating impact on the global economy and security.

Going into the meeting, both parties expressed a desire to stabilise their relationship and re-open lines of communication. The meeting seems to have yielded some positive outcomes as the two leaders agreed to re-establish communication channels between their militaries at the highest level. They also agreed to resume communications between the political leaders.

They also reportedly discussed the possibilities of stemming the flow of the fentanyl drug from China which has allegedly caused many deaths from overdose in the US.

Another major issue discussed was that of Taiwan which Xi was quoted as saying it is the “biggest, most dangerous issue in US-China ties”.

The two parties also discussed the Israel-Palestine conflict and the US reportedly asked China to ensure that Iran does not do anything to escalate the conflict.

Both leaders were positive after the talks with Biden describing the meeting as constructive and productive. It remains to be seen how their summit will change the relations between the two superpowers. Of course no-one expected the two sides to make any major concessions on some of the core disagreements.

However, the meeting itself is an enormously important first step towards mending the most important bilateral relationship in the world.

*Monyae is Associate Professor of International Relations and Political Science, and Director of the Africa-China Studies Centre at the University of Johannesburg

**The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL