Why Is the Xi-Biden Meeting a Milestone?
By Yongnian Zheng

Why Is the Xi-Biden Meeting a Milestone?

Nov. 23, 2023  |     |  0 comments

On November 15th, the heads of state of China and the U.S. held a summit in San Francisco. They engaged in a thorough and sincere exchange on strategic issues concerning Sino-U.S. relations, as well as world peace and development. How should we interpret this Xi-Biden Summit? What changes will it bring to relations between the two countries and for global development?

First, it’s important to note that the Sino-U.S. summit is beneficial not only to bilateral relations but also to the global order. With the world at a crossroads, marred by the turbulence of the Ukraine War and the Israeli-Hamas conflict, stability in Sino-U.S. relations is crucial. As President Xi Jinping stated, "Major power competition is not the underlying tone of this era and cannot solve the problems faced by China, the U.S., and the world."

Second, among the "five pillars" of Sino-U.S. relations discussed by President Xi Jinping, "jointly establishing correct understanding" ranks first. How can a correct understanding between China and the U.S. be established? How can misperceptions be avoided?

Misperceptions, in fact, arise from internal issues. With the decline of the U.S. middle class and the rise of populism, U.S. diplomacy has shifted from post-WWII idealistic internationalism to a more populist approach. Some in the U.S. accuse China of "stealing" jobs, taxes, and technology, not knowing that in this wave of globalization, the U.S. is the biggest beneficiary. 

The domestic discontent in the U.S. is largely a result of its unequal wealth distribution. Despite being one of the wealthiest nations, it has become one of the most unequal, with a middle-class increasingly dominated by the wealthy. This issue cannot be solved by suppressing China, but requires self-reflection.

Moreover, misperceptions can lead to misguided policies. For example, the perception of a "China threat," has led some to support "decoupling" and "de-risking." However, this objective cannot be practically achieved. The deep-rooted economic relationship between China and the U.S. is driven by market forces. Even if temporary trade policy measures reduce direct trade volume between two countries, the flow of goods will simply follow another route. This is evident in the increased trade volume between the U.S. and countries like Vietnam and Mexico, which coincided with a similar increase in trade between China and these nations. History has shown that market dynamics and economic principles cannot be overridden by excessively politicized policies.

Previously, some in the U.S., attempted to understand China through the lens of their own experience and reasoning, emphasizing the concept of the "Thucydides Trap," which posits that conflict is inevitable between a dominant power and a rising one. Nonetheless, a closer look at China's history and civilization tells a different narrative, one that does not inevitably lead to conflict.

A few U.S. business elites have a nuanced understanding of this issue. For example, in a recent blog post, Elon Musk said that if you look at Chinese history, you will find that China does not have genes for external expansion; its primary concern is internal affairs. Henry Kissinger shares a similar view. Both rationally analyze China from its historical practices, steering away from Western-centric theories.

Third, as stated by President Xi Jinping at the welcome banquet hosted by the American Friendship Association, the future of Sino-U.S. relations rests "among the people." In a rapidly changing world, the importance of people-to-people and face-to-face exchanges has become increasingly important. Without ongoing interaction between the citizens of these two nations, relations are bound to worsen, potentially devolving into a cold or even hot war.

Breaking through the battle of perception requires direct, face-to-face exchange and interaction. Some details of this summit were very well-received by many online. For example, President Biden shared with President Xi Jinping an old photo from his visit to San Francisco 38 years ago, praising the elegance of China's red flag car. Such moments are truly heartwarming. It's these personal interactions, only possible in face-to-face meetings, that bring a unique depth to relations between the two countries.

At present, both China and the U.S. realize that they cannot change each other. Nevertheless, different traditions, systems, histories, and cultures do not hinder normal exchanges between the two countries. In fact, if there's an increase in direct exchanges, overly politicized rhetoric will find little traction.

In essence, differences lay the foundation for exchange. As we learned in Economics 101, you need different things for trade. Trading potatoes for potatoes doesn't make much sense; trading potatoes for carrots does. President Biden’s statement during the summit that "the U.S. is happy to see China's development and prosperity," was notably different from previous remarks. This reflects a recognition that the economic structures of China and the U.S. are highly complementary. As China becomes wealthier, it opens opportunities for America to become even more prosperous. China could purchase high-tech products from the U.S., while Americans could benefit from China’s more affordably manufactured goods. This synergy allows both countries to leverage their unique strengths.

How then should we convey the right message during interactions? In 2015, President Xi Jinping addressed the U.S. business community in Seattle, sharing insights into the Chinese Dream. More recently, in San Francisco, he elaborated on China’s path to modernization, illustrating his points with various small stories about China-U.S. interactions. To successfully "tell your country's story well" on the global stage, you must integrate the values and aspirations into tangible examples. This approach avoids preaching and steers clear from lofty but hollow rhetoric.

Since 2015, China has undertaken many initiatives worthy of global attention. For example, the Belt and Road Initiative, initially just a vision, now boasts tangible results. Similarly, China's commitment to green development is illustrated through many small successes. For instance, when 59 national parliamentarians visited Shenzhen, they were impressed to find that all city buses were powered by new energy. These specific examples provide the international community with a clear, firsthand view of China's strides in new energy reform and green development.

In promoting its achievements, it is also necessary for China to articulate its development goals. Historically, China experienced a decline when it was closed off, but it is now growing through openness. History’s lessons have taught China that it cannot close itself off; instead it should strive for a more equitable international order. This approach can be a win-win game.

Last but not least, there remains a concern within Chinese public opinion following the summit: what if the U.S. continues to act in ways that contradict its words? From my point of view, it's unlikely that the U.S. will completely reverse its stance on Taiwan and the containment of China's development. But the past few years of disputes should have clarified to the U.S. that Taiwan is a critical issue for China, a matter of core interest where both sides should ideally find common ground. Of course, the possibility of radical politicians exploiting the Taiwan issue cannot be entirely discounted.

As for the suppression of China's development, more and more U.S. elites, especially those in the technology sector, are recognizing the potential loss of the Chinese market if this continues. For example, previously, a third of U.S. chip exports went to China. If China starts manufacturing its own chips, there would be little reason for them to continue purchasing American ones. This concern led’ the three major chip manufacturers to collectively lobby the U.S. government to withdraw the ban.

Of course, the inconsistency between the U.S.'s words and deeds can be partly attributed to systemic factors, such as political polarization. However, this should not deter China from continuing its diplomatic efforts. Rather, China must keep advocating for the future of the global community, holding the conviction that regardless of who is in power in the U.S., the two countries need to maintain their strong relations.

As President Xi Jinping said: "China never bets on the U.S. losing, nor does it interfere in U.S. internal affairs, and has no intention to challenge or replace the U.S., we would like to see a confident, open, and prosperous U.S. In the same vein, the U.S. should not bet on China’s failure, should not interfere in China's internal affairs, and should welcome a peaceful, stable, and prosperous China."

*The author is grateful to Ms Anran Zhang for her effective research assistance. Ms Anran Zhang is Researcher of the Pacific Institution, Hong Kong.