Diplomatic breakthroughs: Biden-Xi summit reshapes US-China relations

Agreements on climate change and fentanyl trafficking were as useful as keeping dialogue going

During the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in California, the pivotal encounter between US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping took place on November 16. This meeting carried particular significance against the backdrop of strained relations that have persisted since the preceding year, notably triggered by the visit of then-UD House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan. This visit prompted China to sever military communication channels, and subsequent events, such as the shooting down of a Chinese spy balloon by the USA later this year, further exacerbated tensions.

Beyond these specific incidents, numerous pressing issues elevated the importance of this meeting. These included ongoing conflicts in Europe and the Middle East, the apprehension among global allies regarding the implications of the great-power rivalry between the USA and China on their foreign policy decisions, sluggish economic growth within China, the fentanyl crisis in the USA, and the forthcoming elections in both Taiwan and the USA.

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The primary objectives of this meeting revolved around effectively managing competition, mitigating potential risks that could lead to conflict, and ensuring the maintenance of open communication channels. As articulated by a senior US administration official, the focus was on preventing the undesirable consequences of heightened competition and fostering an environment conducive to diplomatic engagement.

Due to the nature of competition between both countries and severely strained relations since the previous year, officials from both sides were keeping expectations low before the meeting of President Biden and President XI, the meeting resulted in key agreements on several issues while no consensus on many.

“I believe these are some of the most constructive and productive discussions we’ve had,” President Biden said after the meeting. “We’ve made some important progress.”

President Xi earlier acknowledged that US-China relations have “never been smooth sailing”.

But he added that, for the two superpowers, “turning their back on each other is not an option”.

Here are successful several take-outs from the meeting in California

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Both leaders have agreed on restoring military–to–military communication which was a huge priority for the USA in this meeting.

Today, I ‘m announcing that the US and PRC are resuming military-to-military communications.

‘Clear and open communication between our defense establishment is vital to avoid miscalculations by either side and prevent conflict. The world expects this of responsible countries.’

As the meeting began Mr Biden told Mr Xi: “I value our conversation because I think it’s paramount that you and I understand each other clearly, leader to leader, with no misconceptions or miscommunication.”

“During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union always maintained military-to-military communication to avoid any accident or misreading of intent that could cause a war between nuclear powers,” said Mick Mulroy, a former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense. “This needs to also be the case now between China and the US.

The leaders also talked about the Taiwan issue in detail, and President Xi raised his concern that America should stop arming Taiwan because reunification is “unstoppable”, according to the Chinese foreign ministry.

The senior US official commented that the US stance on Taiwan “remains unchanged”.

The other noteworthy agreement is to tackle fentanyl trafficking

Both parties have agreed to collaborative efforts in combating drug trafficking, with China pledging to intensify efforts against chemical companies. This joint initiative aims to curb the influx of illicit fentanyl into the USA, a contributing factor to the alarming surge in overdose deaths, totaling approximately 75,000 in the previous year. Notably, Chinese manufacturing entities serve as not only suppliers of synthetic opioids but also as sources of precursor chemicals integral to their production.

This accomplishment could potentially serve as a significant success for Biden in the forthcoming presidential elections, addressing a pivotal issue that holds paramount importance for the average US citizen.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on international organized crime at the Brookings Institution, said in an interview with BBC  the agreement was “a diplomatic and political statement”, but its real impact is still a question mark.

“It remains to be seen how China will go after these companies,” she said. “Will it go after three of them? Five? 50?”

She said she believes China will probably continue to use counter-narcotics cooperation as a “bargaining chip” and “an instrument of conducting broader diplomacy”.

Both countries, which are the world’s top carbon emitters, agreed on enhanced measures to deal with climate change.   They promised to cooperate to slow methane emissions, a particularly potent greenhouse gas, and support global efforts to triple renewable energy by 2030.

Experts told the BBC that these are noteworthy developments in advance of a major climate change conference, COP28, in Dubai later this month.

“It’s small but important steps on climate change,” said Bernice Lee, an expert on China and a fellow at Chatham House, a UK think tank.

David Waskow, from the World Resources Institute, called the methane agreement a “major step”.”China is the world’s largest methane emitter and serious action to curb this gas is essential for slowing global warming in the near term,” Mr Waskow said.

During an exchange over the war between Israel and Hamas, Biden encouraged Xi to use China’s leverage with Iran to warn against a wider escalation. In the talks, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said they had already held discussions with the Iranians on the topic.

It remained unclear to Biden’s aides afterward how seriously Iran was taking China’s messages. In the talks, Biden made clear to Xi that he viewed Hamas as separate from the Palestinians.

In one exchange about restrictions the USA has applied on technology exports to China, Xi likened the steps to “technological containment.” Biden responded directly by saying the USA was not going to provide technology to China that could be used militarily against it.

Biden also raised direct concerns to Xi about harassment of American businesses in China, the official said.

The two men discussed artificial intelligence and agreed to work together moving ahead on the new technology.

And Biden told Xi it was important for China to be more transparent on nuclear issues, as it rapidly expands its arsenal.

Biden did not “pull any punches,” the official said, noting Xi experiences little pushback within the Chinese system, adding that the US president was “respectful” but “clear.”

While there were several specific points of agreement, the mere fact that a meeting happened, and that Mr Biden and Mr Xi shook hands, is a positive sign, according to the BBC’s North America editor Sarah Smith.

A meeting of this between two of the world’s most influential leaders is a diplomatic accomplishment in its own right. If they can establish an agreement to maintain ongoing communication, that alone could be deemed a success.

As the meeting began Mr Biden told Mr Xi: “I value our conversation because I think it’s paramount that you and I understand each other clearly, leader to leader, with no misconceptions or miscommunication.”

The Chinese leader agreed. “Conflict and confrontation has unbearable consequences for both sides,” he said.

“The last four months have seen a truly remarkable improvement in communications between Washington and Beijing,” said Dimitar Gueorguiev, director of Chinese studies at Syracuse University.

“Much of that was directly tied to this APEC meeting, however… we should not assume that the positive momentum can or will be sustained,”

Aalia Naseer
Aalia Naseer
The author is a Lecturer, National University of Modern Languages in Islamabad. She can be reached at [email protected]


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