The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Are Biden and Xi forging a tentative U.S.-China detente? It’s complicated.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping and President Biden have major differences, but they have been seeking to prevent their countries’ disputes from spiraling out of control. (Nicolas Asfouri and Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

The Chinese government waited until the midst of the pandemic in July 2020 to say out loud what had been clear for months, if not years: Relations between Washington and Beijing had reached their worst point since diplomatic ties were established in 1979.

Early meetings after President Biden took office quickly dashed hopes of an immediate detente. China’s most senior diplomat, Yang Jiechi, delivered a bombastic speech about how the United States lacked “qualifications” to tell China what to do. Later talks to “set guardrails” were more cordial but ended without a clear sense of how the fraying relationship would avoid unraveling further.

Yet a gradual accumulation of small diplomatic breakthroughs in recent weeks has created hope among Chinese scholars that the world’s two largest economies have placed a floor — albeit a fragile one — under the fierce diplomatic spat. The success, or otherwise, of attempts to shelve lasting disagreements will be tested in coming months as both sides enter crucial climate talks and China fends off calls for diplomatic boycotts of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

On Wednesday, a six-hour meeting in Zurich between Yang and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan ended with an announcement that President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping would hold a virtual summit before the end of the year. China’s state broadcaster described the outcome as an agreement to get relations back on track.

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Deng Yuwen, a former editor of the Study Times, a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) journal, said the meeting was significant because it reflected a consensus that the two sides needed to find a way to improve ties. “It shows recognition that the relationship was stuck at the bottom of a ravine; any deeper and it would become truly dangerous,” he said.

In Beijing, the perceived continuity from President Donald Trump to Biden in confronting China had originally created a sense of fatalism among Chinese scholars, who had taken to warning that U.S. politicians from both parties are intent on thwarting China’s rise.

Chu Shulong, a scholar at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said that a visit by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to Tianjin in July paved the way for productive talks between U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua. “The public statements at the time were strongly worded, but I know that the talks were positive for both sides,” he said.

After two visits to China by Kerry, Xi announced last month that China would no longer build coal-fired power plants beyond its borders, a breakthrough ahead of the U.N. climate negotiations in November in Glasgow, Scotland.

But areas of aligned interests remain limited. Simmering disagreements over any number of topics — including China’s escalating military aggression toward Taiwan and the origins of the coronavirus pandemic — could easily unwind diplomatic niceties about a desire to avoid confrontation.

U.S. negotiations will also have to contend with China’s increasingly combative public diplomacy, where any criticism of China for the mass internment of Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim people in Xinjiang, or the erosion of civil liberties in Hong Kong, is met with angry displays of patriotic bravado.

In their July meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Sherman that to improve ties, the United States must not challenge or smear China’s political system, disrupt its development or violate its national sovereignty.

He also presented her with two lists, one of “U.S. wrongdoings that must stop” and another of “key individual cases that China has concerns with.” Neither list was made public.

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For Beijing, one important aspect of Biden’s China policy that has helped improve relations is the end of attacks on China’s political system that had become the norm under Trump, said Wu Xinbo, a scholar at Fudan University in Shanghai.

“Biden still emphasizes that the competition between the U.S. and China is one between democracy and autocracy. There’s still an ideological component. But he doesn’t directly target the Chinese Communist Party or Xi Jinping himself,” Wu said.

Biden’s criticisms of Chinese trade practices or human rights abuses have steered clear of the inflammatory language used by Trump, who would call the coronavirus the “Chinese virus.” Beijing took particular dislike to then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whose description of Chinese Communist Party rule as “tyranny” was met with repeated attacks from Chinese state media and parting sanctions as he left office.

Even so, Beijing has given no sign that it is ready for an outright detente and has suggested that only when all of its conditions are met will a reset in relations be possible.

When Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou returned to China last month after the United States ended a push to extradite her from Canada, Beijing released two Canadians from Chinese jail and lifted an exit ban on U.S. citizens Victor and Cynthia Liu. But the Chinese Foreign Ministry denied that the “removal of this deep thorn” was enough to fix ties.

“There are still many thorns, both big and small,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said during a briefing last week. “We hope the U.S. can pay attention and take action to clear these two lists.”

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Negotiations over specific demands are likely to increase in the coming months as the White House concludes reviews into its China policy. On Monday, U.S. trade envoy Katherine Tai laid out a plan to reengage with China over distortions in its economy, while also highlighting that China was failing to meet its commitments under an agreement signed last year.

He Weiwen, a former counselor at Chinese consulates in San Francisco and New York, said in an interview that the two sides would need to review the trade deal signed under Trump. He argues that China’s low levels of purchases reflect obstacles preventing China from meeting the proposed dollar value set at the time, including U.S. supply restrictions and procurement deals not meeting requirements to be price competitive.

“All the developments in bilateral relations since 2017 have shown that Washington doesn’t tolerate China’s values, its socialist system and CCP leadership,” which will make it very difficult for the United States to meet China’s demands, said He, who is now a senior fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University in Beijing.

Chu, the Tsinghua scholar, agrees that an immediate significant improvement is impossible, but that any progress is still pretty good. “For now, if things don’t get worse, then that is also good news,” he said.

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