The recent meeting between President Biden and President Xi Jinping of China may not have resulted in many formal agreements, but its significance should not be underestimated. Given the current state of relations between the two countries, simply having the leaders communicate face-to-face is a breakthrough.
The fact that they agreed to maintain regular telephone contact is also crucial, particularly considering Mr. Xi’s unprecedented level of power and centralized decision-making.
However, the summit achieved more than just restoring communication. Importantly, President Biden rejected the idea of decoupling the U.S. and Chinese economies, recognizing the complexity and economic pain that would come with such a move.
Instead, he emphasized the importance of robust diplomatic and economic engagement with China. This approach, which involves finding areas of agreement and respectfully acknowledging disagreements, is a better alternative to disengagement or confrontation.
President Xi, who has recently adopted a more conciliatory tone, has domestic reasons for wanting to ease tensions as well. China’s economic growth has slowed, with foreign investment turning negative for the first time in decades.
While Mr. Xi shares some responsibility for these challenges, he, like Mr. Biden, understands that allowing the relationship to deteriorate further would be detrimental to both nations.
One of the most significant outcomes of the summit was the agreement to enhance crisis management between the U.S. and Chinese military forces. Given the recent close encounters between American and Chinese ships and aircraft, as well as clashes in the South China Sea, the risk of unintentional conflict was high.
Restoring direct ties between the armed forces is crucial, especially with Taiwan’s upcoming presidential election and China’s increased military activities in the Taiwan Strait.
Additionally, President Xi committed to regulating the flow of fentanyl and its precursors from China, although skepticism remains based on China’s prior unfulfilled promises. Critics in the U.S. may dismiss any agreement with China, pointing to the country’s military buildup, nuclear arsenal expansion, and alliances with Russia, Iran, and North Korea.
They may also highlight China’s human rights abuses, including the oppression of the Uyghur minority and the curtailing of freedoms in Hong Kong.
It is undeniable that these concerns must be addressed, and China’s behavior should not be excused. However, engaging with China is preferable to disengagement or attempts to decouple, as such actions would harm both economies and increase the likelihood of conflict.
Balancing relations with China is a delicate task, but a realistic approach will contribute to a safer world.