Modern Diplomacy
China-US Summit: Has the Degradation of Relations Been Halted?

The core problem between China and the United States is that the two countries have very different ideas about how to view each other’s existence and how to get along with each other, in other words, there are substantive differences in their mutual identification, modes of coexistence, and principles of national relations, Zhao Huasheng writes.

In evaluating the significance of the meeting between Xi Jinping and Biden in San Francisco, it is important to look at the concrete results it achieved. However, there is also another perspective, the historical one; we will see what historic role it will play in China-US relations, whether it will become a landmark event in turning them around, and whether they will thus enter a new period of positive interaction. Given that Sino-US relations have fallen to their lowest point since 1972, this is perhaps a more important perspective from which to assess the San Francisco meeting.

The San Francisco summit between China and the United States did not come out of the blue, nor was it an isolated event. In China, the meeting of the heads of state has been described as a “walk into San Francisco and a return to Bali”, meaning that, in the political sense, the San Francisco summit got its start on the side-lines of the G-20 leaders’ meeting in Bali, Indonesia.

There, Xi and Biden met on Nov. 14, 2022. Starting in the Trump era, Sino-US relations had deteriorated sharply, and prior to the Bali meeting, the heads of the US and China had not met in more than three years, with a complete break in top-level exchanges as a result. It was also the first time Xi and Biden had met as heads of state, although they had met many times before as the vice presidents of their countries.

The Bali meeting yielded good results with the so-called Bali consensus, in which the leaders of the two countries expressed their respective constructive concepts and policies on China-United States relations, with Xi Jinping proposing a model for the two countries’ relations based on mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and win-win cooperation, and stating that China does not seek to change the existing international order, does not intervene in the internal affairs of the United States, and does not intend to challenge or replace the position of the United States. Biden, for his part, made a five-point pledge that the United States would not seek a new Cold War, would not seek to change China’s institutions, would not seek to oppose China through strengthened alliances, would not support Taiwan’s independence, and had no intention of entering into a conflict with China.

However, the implementation of the Bali consensus has been fraught with difficulties, mainly due to the obstruction of some forces within the United States. In particular, the visit of Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US House of Representatives, to Taiwan on August 2, 2022, seriously touched China’s bottom line and drew a strong reaction from China. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) then conducted military exercises around Taiwan, and the planned visit of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to China was postponed. In February 2023, the “Balloon incident” occurred, in which a Chinese weather balloon accidentally blown by the wind into the sky over the US was intentionally portrayed as a spy balloon, and the US media made a great deal of fuss about it, stirring anti-China sentiments in the country. In such an atmosphere, it is difficult for any benign interaction to take place.
Economic Statecraft
US-China: Creeping Escalation
Ivan Timofeev
The United States and China assume the irreversibility of confrontation, but for their own reasons, they delay its escalation. This does not mean that sooner or later there will not be a landslide fall in relations. Predicting exactly the timing and scale of such a fall is as difficult as was predicting a crisis in relations between Russia and the West, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Ivan Timofeev.

However, beginning in the second half of 2023, senior Chinese and US officials began to make frequent visits to each other. Secretary of State Blinken visited China in June, 2023. Treasury Secretary Yellen and Presidential Climate Envoy Kerry came to Beijing in July, followed by Secretary of Commerce Raimondo in August; a bipartisan delegation of US congressional senators visited Beijing and Shanghai in October. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also visited Washington in that same month, meeting with Biden, Blinken, and Sullivan. The US and Chinese departments of agriculture, commerce and finance, as well as their central banking systems, decided to establish working mechanisms. China’s foreign affairs ministry and the US State Department planned to hold meetings on Asia-Pacific affairs, maritime affairs, and foreign policy measures. The atmosphere of US-China relations began to warm up, which opened the way to San Francisco and created the conditions for Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States. Against this backdrop, in November 15, 2023, a meeting between Xi and Biden in San Francisco was realised.

The San Francisco meeting resumed exchanges between the US and Chinese militaries that had been halted by US sanctions and in response to Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, and reached a number of cooperation agreements in areas such as counter-narcotics, climate change, the management of artificial intelligence, humanitarian cooperation, and so on, but one of its most important political outcomes was the reaffirmation of the political principles guiding the relationship between the two countries that they set forth at the Bali meeting. This is what China means by “returning to Bali”. After the San Francisco Summit, it further evolved into the “San Francisco Vision”.

In terms of the complexity of China-United States relations, in the absence of major changes in the situation, the shift to benign interaction between the two countries will be a long-term process, which can only move forward step by step, and will not be a sudden overall turnaround. From this perspective, it can be said with certainty that the San Francisco summit was a success, which eased the relationship between the two countries and initiated a return of China-US relations to the right track. Of course, the beginning of the reset does not yet mean final success. Russia and the US had a grand launch of the reset of their relations in 2009, but then bilateral ties proceeded from the Russia-Georgia conflict and the Crimea incident all the way to today’s indirect military confrontation, ending in complete failure. How far and for how long the San Francisco vision will take US-China relations can only be determined after this history has taken place, and for now it is anyone’s guess. However, for every process there is a beginning, without which there can be no process at all. The San Francisco meeting is such a beginning, and on the whole it is a beginning that brings some hope, rather than adding to the disappointment.

The transformation of China-United States relations into positive interaction is bound to be a difficult process. The crux of the problem with Sino-US relations is not any one single issue; it involves the destruction of a comprehensive foundation, including its political, ideological, diplomatic, military, security, economic, social and other aspects. The core problem is that the two countries have very different ideas about how to view each other’s existence and how to get along with each other, in other words, there are substantive differences in their mutual identification, modes of coexistence, and principles of national relations.
Despite the constant conflicts between China and the United States, China does not want to characterise the United States as an enemy or an adversary, but rather as a possible partner.

China opposes the wrongdoings and policies of the United States, but does not target the whole country as an object of opposition. The US, on the contrary, has positioned China as the biggest challenge to the US. This has been written in official US documents, and it has become the general starting point of US policy toward China. US attempts to “decouple” itself from China economically, to impose sanctions on China technologically, and to encircle and contain China militarily, are all motivated by this positioning of China.

China is well aware of its differences with the United States, but hopes to establish a model of peaceful coexistence and mutually beneficial bilateral relations. China believes that its existence as a world power is an objective reality, a reality that cannot be changed, and that peaceful coexistence and cooperation is the best option, benefiting both countries. But the United States does not subscribe to the model proposed by China, and it has framed its relationship with China in terms of strategic competition, which President Biden was outspoken about at the San Francisco meeting. It does not accept a win-win formula or a status of parity with China; its goal is to out-compete China, that is, to overwhelm China in terms of power. China does not oppose or worry about normal and fair competition, but not all competition of the United States is normal and fair.

In terms of state relations, China regards non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries as a basic principle of mutual relations. The United States is theoretically opposed to interference in internal affairs, and is extremely sensitive and reactive to interference by other countries in the internal affairs of the United States, but the United States interferes in the internal affairs of other countries and has no limits in doing so. Actually, US interference in China’s internal affairs has been one of the most important sources of conflict between China and the US, such as in the Taiwan issue, the Hong Kong issue, the Xinjiang issue, and so on.

This contradiction is also reflected in ideological issues. China advocates harmony in diversity, believing that differences in ideologies and political systems should not affect relations between countries and that they should not impose their own models on each other. The United States, on the contrary, insists on values diplomacy, divides countries into what it calls democratic and autocratic, imposes its own model on others, and uses the promotion of democracy as a way to achieve geopolitical interests, threatening the political stability and security of other countries, including China.

On the most important issue of security, China insists on a new security concept of common security, advocating the elimination of the root causes of insecurity, while the United States insists on maintaining absolute military superiority and pursuing absolute security for the United States. This will only increase China’s sense of insecurity, and ultimately is leading to a vicious circle and arms competition, with the security environment becoming worse for both sides. The San Francisco meeting resumed high-level communication between the two militaries. The establishment of crisis management and control mechanisms is extremely important, and essential to avoiding military danger, but it cannot eliminate the root causes of crises. The US is content with the establishment of crisis control mechanisms, but this is in fact something approaching a brink-of-war-policy, because crises are not always controllable.

Differences between the United States and China on all of these fundamental concepts will persist, and the basic US policy toward China will not fundamentally change. It is widely recognised that the US policy of treating China as a strategic adversary is already a bipartisan consensus, and will therefore continue regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans are in power, albeit with different manifestations. Chinese officials and academics have a clear understanding of this, they are prepared for the capriciousness of the relationship between the two countries and have no romantic illusions of the relationship suddenly becoming trusting and friendly.

This does not mean, however, that Sino-American relations are destined to be unchangeable and bound to move towards full-scale conflict. China-United States relations are not shaped only by negative forces; among the major forces shaping it, there are also positive and neutral forces, which act as a counterweight to the negative ones, and together determine the direction and outlook of Sino-US relations.

China is one of the most important factors in shaping these bilateral relations, and it is the most important positive factor. China’s approach is oriented towards striving for cooperation and aimed at stabilising and improving China-US relations; Beijing’s policy stems more from a strategic and historical perspective, focusing on solving strategic, holistic root causes; China advocates seeking common ground while reserving differences, and peaceful coexistence. China opposes the Cold War mentality and the zero-sum game, and advocates win-win cooperation; and China has no intention of challenging the US or confronting the US. Undoubtedly, China’s propositions are correct in terms of values and progressive in terms of the concept of international relations, which play an important role in promoting the development of China-US relations in the right direction.

Once viewed as the “ballast stone” of US-China relations, the positive significance of close economic ties has been somewhat minimised or ignored as economic and technological sectors have also become important areas of US repression against China. In fact, both China and the United States have experienced a decline in each other’s status as trading partners, the United States from China’s second-largest trading partner to third, China from the United States’ largest trading partner to fourth, but the trade volume of the two countries in 2022 is still 700 billion U. S. dollars, accounting for about 10% of all US foreign trade, which is still a considerable amount. It cannot rule out the possibility that Sino-US trade turnover will decline, but the facts of the past few years have shown that a complete decoupling between the two world’s largest economies is impossible, business interests in China are still huge for the US, and the US itself can’t afford to give it up.

China and the United States share not only contradictions and conflicts, but also common interests. On global governance and regional security issues, China and the United States have many common interests, such as with respect to climate change, food security, environmental issues, the prevention of nuclear proliferation, artificial intelligence management, the prevention and resolution of regional conflicts, and so on. Cooperation with China on these issues is not only indispensable, it is vital. Of course, China also needs the cooperation of the United States. China considers China-United States relations to be the most important bilateral relationship, which is not the concept of China-United States co-rule or the idea of a bipolar world, but rather the idea that cooperation between China and the United States can bring the greatest benefits to the world, while confrontation between China and the United States will cause disastrous damage to the world.

Although the United States will not change its position of taking China as the strategic challenge, and will not change its policy of strategic containment of China, a direct military conflict or even a war with China is not what it wants. This is not to say that the possibility of the outbreak of military conflict between the United States and China can be completely ruled out, here only to say that the United States in the subjective intention does not want to have a war with China. Surely, subjective intention is not an absolute guarantee that the conflict will not occur. History shows that many wars were not planned in advance. But, in any case, avoiding direct military conflict and war with China is an important factor in the United States’ consideration of its policy toward China.

Finally, a chronically volatile and unpredictable US-China relationship is also extremely costly and risky for the United States. It is also in the interest of the US to seek a form of manageable risk and relative stability. This is why Biden was willing to meet Chinese leaders in both Bali and San Francisco.

From above, it can be seen that China-United States relations are affected by different factors and are extremely contradictory, making it extremely difficult to make a definite prediction. If we must make a prediction about Sino-US relations in the near- and medium-term future, considering that the negative factors are much stronger, it is basically impossible for Sino-US relations to reach a stage where friendship, cooperation and benign interactions are the mainstay. However, there is a possibility that they may move towards de-escalation and relative stability. Even in the confrontation between two camps such as the United States and the Soviet Union, there have been long periods of détente and stability. After conflict, collision, adaptation and acceptance, China-United States relations will eventually reach a mutually acceptable model, and it is in this direction that these bilateral relations are now moving San Francisco meeting was an effort to that end. If this process is successful, together with the Bali meeting, the San Francisco meeting will be its historical starting point.
Morality and Law
Panic of Decline – Which Is the Revisionist Power, the US or China?
Xiang Lanxin
There’s no question that the US, rather than China, is a leading revisionist power today, because the Washington establishment of both political parties is trapped in another wave of panic: the morbid fear of a US decline. Americans are always obsessed with declinism. Declinism is a business that never declines, writes Valdai Club expert Xiang Lanxin.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.