Wednesday’s meeting between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping was a lot harder to pull off than the photographs of the two leaders ambling around the gardens of the Filoli mansion outside San Francisco may have made it appear. The White House has spent the last 10 months working to restore dialogue after years of mounting tension that most recently featured an errant Chinese observation balloon and possible Chinese military support for Russia’s war on Ukraine. In the process of working toward the meeting, the White House faced strong domestic political headwinds.
Finding a modus vivendi with China will involve deterrence and sometimes sharp competition. But dialogue is the only way to reduce misperception and unneeded economic, military and financial costs. The actual outcomes of the summit were modest, but major breakthroughs take time and if Biden and Xi had not met, the outlook for stabilizing the relationship would be bleak.
During the Cold war, successive US presidents held scores of summits with their Soviet counterparts, albeit intermittently. Lower-level officials met regularly as well, especially on arms control issues. Ronald Reagan is often remembered for calling the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire”, but he also understood the importance of dialogue with adversaries and launched a series of summits with his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, in the mid-1980s that helped end the Cold war.
After the Cold war, when the US enjoyed unprecedented global power, presidential summitry seemed less important. America’s main adversaries – Iran, Iraq and North Korea – were far lesser powers, their leaders unworthy of a meeting with the US president. Al Qaeda, which became America’s most hated enemy after the 9/11 attacks, was even less a candidate. US leaders met with their Chinese counterparts, of course, but China was still weak and relations were still good.
Now the situation has changed. The US and China cannot afford a rancorous economic breakup, much less a war. Few of the most pressing global challenges, from artificial intelligence to the climate crisis to global health, can be tackled if the two countries cannot sit across the table from one another and talk.
Biden thus deserves credit for pushing ahead with the summit despite a heated and often nationalistic US political context in which suspicion about China has been rising. Voices in Washington DC eager for more and more aggressive responses to China’s rise have mostly had the upper hand in recent years, with moderates concerned they could be portrayed as un-American if they don’t hew to a more antagonistic line. Many Republicans, and some Democrats, even seem to welcome a more adversarial relationship for domestic political reasons.
Unsurprisingly, then, congressional Republicans have targeted Biden with criticism for meeting with Xi. After all, they say, Xi is a “dictator” and Biden himself has said so. They also object that the meeting may help Xi revive a flagging Chinese economy, charge that it produced thin results, and claim that diplomacy has forestalled more aggressive deterrence measures.
But these criticisms miss the mark. The point of the meeting was to advance US interests on a number of key issues.
For one, Xi agreed to restore vital lines of military-to-military communication. This may sound like a boring technical issue, but it matters a great deal. China has unwisely allowed these channels to go dark. When the US and Chinese military can’t talk to each other, even an accidental collision between China’s hot-dogging jet-fighters and a US spy plane could escalate into a shootout if the two sides are incommunicado. China’s military also needs to talk more regularly with the Pentagon about their evolving military plans and posture to avoid misunderstandings and increase overall stability. No one wants an accidental war.
The meeting also appears to have made some progress in getting more robust Chinese cooperation in tamping down on the flow of fentanyl precursors to the US, and it was an opportunity to press China to end its unfair trade practices and subsidies to its export industries.
It was also important that Biden offered some reassurance that the US is not intending to change the status quo over Taiwan, given congressional moves and Biden’s own statements that might suggest otherwise. Similarly, the fact of the meeting itself offered some reassurance that the US is not aiming to cripple the Chinese economy, despite concerns – perhaps unwarranted, but nevertheless real – that recent US controls on the export of microprocessors to China aimed to do just that.
It can take years for summit diplomacy to produce dramatic outcomes, and the meeting does not in any way change the steps the Biden administration has already taken to greatly augment the US military footprint in Asia, invest in the US economy, and limit the Chinese military’s access to America’s most advanced technology.
Partisan critiques of Biden’s diplomacy are perhaps to be expected, but too many of these critiques have come to reflect an unrealistic underlying vision for the future of US-China relations, one that points toward military force as the sole instrument of American power. To be sure, some US interests can only be protected through military means. Competition with China is bound to be tough and pointed. But Washington should remember that even Reagan combined robust deterrence with dialogue in the service of broader national aims.
American leadership in the mid-21st century will require Washington to be the grownup in the room and use its power to take the initiative, even with unsavory foes. The very fact that a meeting with the US president is still a highly sought-after prize around the world may be the best evidence that the US can afford more dialogue with adversaries.
Christopher S Chivvis is the director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Program on American Statecraft