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Following Talks, Biden Eyes Diplomatic Reset with Xi

In a pivotal movement toward stabilizing the tremulous U.S.-China relationship, U.S. President Joe Biden’s recent talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping come at a time of heightened tension and significant global unease. Articulating to reporters on Tuesday, Biden expressed his intentions for the talks, emphasizing a return to regular diplomatic engagements, such as direct communication in times of crisis and ensuring open military channels—a reversion to traditional statecraft protocols.

At the White House, shortly before departing for San Francisco to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Biden told reporters his ultimate goal with the talks is “to get back on a normal course, corresponding and being able to pick up the phone and talk to one another in a crisis, and being able to make sure that our militaries still have contact with one another.”

With the international landscape marred by conflicts in the Middle East and Europe, Biden’s calculated approach seeks to navigate the labyrinthine intricacies inherent in this crucial bilateral relationship. At present, two major wars cast a shadow over these diplomatic efforts, with the U.S. and China finding themselves on opposing sides. Notably, China’s alliance with Russia in its war in Ukraine and its reticence to unequivocally denounce Hamas in the wake of the October tragedy, where the terror group killed over a thousand Israelis, has not gone unnoticed.

Commentators have dissected China’s alliances, deducing that its backing of Russia and Iran is symptomatic of its broader aspiration for global dominance. Evidently, China aims to bolster its international standing by becoming a financier to these sanctioned nations, thereby positioning itself as a formidable global superpower.

As the 2024 presidential election looms, Biden is acutely conscious of the imperative to forestall any emergent international crises. His strategy is bifurcated: to assure the American public and Xi of the reciprocal benefits a more harmonious U.S.-China relationship could engender.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden
Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden in 2022.

In anticipation of these high-stakes discussions, U.S. diplomats have exercised discretion in managing public expectations. They have signaled that the outcomes of the talks would likely eschew a comprehensive treaty or mutual public declarations by the leaders—a departure from customary diplomatic conclaves. This reticent approach belies the delicate nature of the discussions and the formidable challenge of achieving substantive consensus.

There is a constellation of complex issues that lurk behind these negotiations, demanding attention. The concerns range from China’s purchase of nearly 400,000 acres of American farmland, its proximity to military installations stirring intrigue, to the infamous spy balloon incident and the arrest of 224 individuals on espionage charges over the past two decades. Additionally, the expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal, reportedly encompassing over 500 operational warheads, and the fentanyl crisis, with the suspicion of China’s role in exacerbating the epidemic, are pressing issues. Moreover, climate change stands as a critical topic, with U.S. ambitions to achieve net-zero emissions necessitating Chinese cooperation. Lastly, the delicate matter of Taiwan remains a focal point, with the U.S. demonstrating its resolve in the Eastern Mediterranean as a deterrent to Iran, a gesture aimed at dissuading China from any aggressive maneuvers regarding Taiwan.

The consensus is that communication is the cornerstone of diplomacy, a principle the Biden administration is striving to reinstate. The recent years have witnessed a deterioration in U.S.-China relations, with mounting tensions over these and other pivotal concerns. The objective now is to alleviate these points of contention and rejuvenate diplomatic and economic exchanges, with a particular emphasis on military coordination.

As an illustration of this renewed engagement, the U.S. and China concurred on Tuesday to collaboratively address facets of anthropogenic climate change, including the advancement of renewable energy technologies, as detailed by Axios. This agreement signals a progressive stride in the environmental dialogue between the globe’s top two carbon emitters.

Thus, Xi’s decision to engage in talks with Biden in San Francisco is indicative of a broader strategy. Although China’s entanglements with American adversaries are well-established, it is intent on averting a deepening conflict with the U.S. This reconciliation with the Biden administration could yield dividends in the future, with the prospect of the Democrats retaining power in 2024, irrespective of Biden’s candidacy.

Nevertheless, some analysts suggest that China’s conciliatory gestures may not equate to a genuine willingness to accommodate U.S. interests. Xi’s apparent reluctance to align with Biden on climate change, among other divergences, speaks to fundamental differences. Yet, this engagement could be a calculated move by Xi to de-escalate tensions, granting China valuable time to solidify its alliances with Iran and Russia.

The rise of China is a source of consternation among many American observers, and Xi’s aggressive domestic and foreign policies are of particular concern. In this context, the Biden administration is eager to re-open the U.S.-China military dialogue, aspiring to diminish tensions and foster greater stability, both diplomatically and strategically.

While this attempt may not replicate the ‘reset’ button moment with Russia proposed by Hillary Clinton, it signifies a potential and substantial pivot in the trajectory of U.S.-China relations.