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Opinion The Biden-Xi meeting shows that U.S.-China relations will get worse, not better

President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping prepare to shake hands as they meet on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, on Monday. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S.-China relations are so bad these days that any communication between Washington and Beijing is inevitably hailed as a potential turning point in the ever-worsening relationship. But Monday’s meeting between President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping actually serves as a sober reminder of the unfortunate reality that the two superpowers are headed for more confrontation, not less, in the months and years ahead.

Despite Biden’s oft-repeated belief that “all foreign policy is personal,” there was no substantive progress made in the 3½-hour confab. That’s because the problems in the U.S.-China relationship are structural, not personal. And although Xi says he wants to improve the atmosphere, his actions tell a different story.

The White House set expectations low before the first in-person meeting between the two men since Biden assumed office. The event was pitched as an effort to “build a floor” under the relationship by bolstering high-level communication. And it’s certainly true that Xi’s isolation from the world for the past three years has raised the risk of misunderstandings. The fact that he’s inhabiting an ever-shrinking bubble — having purged all his critics — means that any opportunity to speak directly to Xi is worth taking.

“I’m convinced that he understood exactly what I was saying. I understood what he was saying,” Biden said afterward, rolling out the meager results. Biden said he was convinced that there was no need for the United States and China to enter into a cold war and he was confident a Chinese invasion of Taiwan was not “imminent.”

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The two sides agreed to restart some of the stalled dialogues cut off by Beijing after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) visited Taiwan in August. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to China at some point. Both sides agreed that a nuclear war would be bad, a warning to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In his comments before the meeting, Xi played into the idea he wanted a detente in the U.S.-China relationship. He and Biden should “bring China-U.S. relations back to the track of healthy and stable growth,” Xi said. Predictably, much of Washington praised this supposed thaw, and markets jumped at the prospect of an economic thaw to go with it.

The problem with this thinking is that it ignores Beijing’s worsening behavior and the fact that Xi wasn’t willing to negotiate on any of the contentious issues. After his appointment as dictator for life and his consolidation of power, Xi has little incentive to do anything substantial to address U.S. concerns about China’s military aggression toward Taiwan, its mass atrocities against the Uyghurs, its unfair trade practices or any other issue.

“When Xi Jinping says he wants a better U.S.-China relationship, what he really means is that he wants U.S. capitulation on China’s ‘core interests,’ ” said Joshua Eisenman, associate professor of politics at the University of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs. “So it’s not that Xi wouldn’t be happy with a better U.S. relationship; it’s just that the terms he is offering are more a list of demands than areas of actual bilateral cooperation.”

Even on issues of mutual interest, there was zero give on Beijing’s side. China has resumed talking about climate change but has not agreed to drop its demand for sanctions to be lifted upfront on its silicon companies for their use of forced labor. On Iran, North Korea and Russia, Beijing is still intent on undermining U.S. policy.

And because the United States has no intention of capitulating to Beijing’s demands that it abandon Taiwan and shut up about its human rights violations, U.S. policy will continue to bump up against Xi’s “red lines.” In fact, both parties in Washington are set to ramp up their efforts to confront China’s actions next year. A GOP-led House of Representatives is going to intensify its focus on the Chinese Communist Party. More lawmakers, including perhaps prospective House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), will visit Taiwan. The Biden administration will only be expanding its export restrictions on high-technology items to China.

Xi’s professed desire for a reset in U.S.-China relations rings hollow because of his long record of deception on this issue. This is the same Xi who promised President Barack Obama in 2015 that he would not militarize the South China Sea — and then did just that. This is the same Xi who signed an agreement promising that China would not use cyberespionage for economic aggression. Fool me once …

Rather than listen to Xi’s dubious claims, Washington should listen more to U.S. allies and partners in Asia, who want more U.S. economic engagement in the region, and to U.S. military commanders, who are warning that U.S. military deterrence in the Pacific is eroding as China’s military footprint quickly expands.

As for handling Xi, it makes complete sense to keep the lines of communication open, in the hope that Beijing will someday be ready to really negotiate in a way that responds to the international community’s concerns about its actions. Talking is great, but only if we are clear-eyed about the character and intentions of the dictator across the table.

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