The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden’s best tool for halting a slide in U.S.-China relations? His phone.

President Biden with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Bali, Indonesia, in November. (Alex Brandon/AP)
5 min

There are different ways of showing presidential courage. One is getting on a train to visit Kyiv in the middle of the war there. Another is picking up the phone and calling Xi Jinping at a time of sharply deteriorating U.S.-China relations.

Reaching out to the Chinese leader wouldn’t win President Biden popularity points at home, and it would give Republicans a talking point they would undoubtedly exploit. But it’s the right thing to do regardless of the politics. And it embodies the mature global stewardship that should be part of Biden’s brand as a leader.

I know the objections. Xi will treat Biden’s outreach as a concession and a sign of U.S. weakness. The United States won’t get meaningful benefits. Xi’s ruthlessly self-interested regime will pursue its goals even more aggressively. And Europeans will think that they have a license to dicker with China, too.

So why should Biden signal that he wants to engage Xi now? The simple answer is that the relationship between Washington and Beijing is near its lowest point in modern times, prodded by hard-liners in both capitals who seem to believe confrontation is inevitable.

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Confrontation might indeed lie ahead. But Biden was right last year to try to put a “floor” under this deteriorating relationship. At the Bali summit in November, Xi and Biden both seemed ready to reduce tensions and improve strategic stability.

“I’m looking to manage this competition responsibly,” Biden said afterward. Xi similarly said: “As the leaders of these two great powers, China and the United States, we must play the role setting the direction of the rudder.”

But the relationship has imploded since, because of bad Chinese policy, a bad U.S. response and just plain bad luck. The balloon overflight was an example of all three, and although it had little military or strategic importance, the fiasco collapsed the post-Bali diplomatic opening that would have sent Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing — and might have set the ground for a Biden-Xi summit.

Xi wanted the Blinken visit; that became clear with China’s semi-apology after its surveillance balloon was discovered drifting across the United States. Blinken canceled the trip, but he hoped to rehabilitate relations (and rebook his flight) in a meeting in Munich last month with Foreign Minister Wang Yi. But that, too, soured, partly because the United States decided to leak to its allies intelligence that China was considering sending weapons to Russia.

With public warnings to China and Blinken’s private attempt to re-engage, U.S. diplomacy was moving in two directions at once, and not surprisingly, it went nowhere. Meanwhile, with growing GOP attacks on China, and “low confidence” but headline-making intelligence suggesting that covid-19 might have resulted from a lab leak, Washington has been experiencing a “perfect typhoon” that could swamp efforts at dialogue.

So the desired floor under the relationship has now all but collapsed. The current focus of tension involves the U.S. intelligence reporting that China might supply Russia with ammunition to sustain its flagging war in Ukraine. U.S. officials believe that some leaders beneath Xi are wary of this doubling-down on Russia, seeing a stable relationship with the United States and its European allies as a better bet for China than backing a losing, escalation-prone Vladimir Putin. Officials tell me that China hasn’t sent the weapons yet; if it does, Biden will have to take sharp countermeasures.

That’s why Biden should make that call to Beijing now — because we are on the lip of a significant further deterioration in U.S.-China relations. The audience would be China, and also the countries of the global south such as India, South Africa and Brazil that worry about increasing instability in a world where the United States seems obsessed with great-power conflict but unable to cap rising tensions.

It’s true that the Chinese calibrate U.S. strength. But appearing weak shouldn’t be such a worry for a United States whose military power dwarfs that of its rivals.

Consider the array of U.S.-led power emerging in the Indo-Pacific: U.S. Marines are deploying forward to provide better leverage against any Chinese attack against Taiwan. A rearming Japan is deploying American-made Tomahawk cruise missiles. The Philippines is providing the United States with military bases close to Taiwan. Later this month, Biden will formally launch AUKUS, the major new Asian military alliance with Australia and Britain. These strong deterrence moves don’t preclude diplomacy, they enable it.

Biden should close his phone call by inviting Xi for a face-to-face meeting. Such summits amid global tension are high-risk, high-reward. Some of President Ronald Reagan’s advisers thought he was nuts to meet with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Iceland in 1986. But the meeting was a positive inflection point.

What should Biden propose as topics for a possible summit meeting with Xi, beyond the usual U.S. focus on crisis control and strategic stability? I’d suggest the two biggest challenges facing the two superpowers: A dialogue about artificial intelligence and other world-altering emerging technologies, as former secretary of state Henry Kissinger has proposed; and discussion of an agreement for a “green energy” transition to save the planet from catastrophic climate change.

Will Republicans howl about any new opening with China? For sure. Would a Biden-Xi meeting produce any meaningful results? No one can say. Is it worth a try? Absolutely.