By Clifford A. Kiracofe · 2023-11-23 · Source: China Focus
Will China-U.S. relations begin to improve after the Xi-Biden summit in San Francisco? In recent years, China-U.S. relations have been at rock bottom owing to Washington’s Cold War mentality which sharpened markedly during the Trump administration and became even more intense under the Biden administration.
President Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden just met on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the founding of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) organization which held its summit in San Francisco last week.
“For two large countries like China and the United States, turning their back on each other is not an option,” President Xi Jinping wisely said during the meeting with President Joe Biden. “Planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed, and one country’s success is an opportunity for the other.”
President Xi made his first trip to the United States since 2017 when he visited then-President Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago manor in Florida. The last time President Xi met with Biden was at Bali, Indonesia during the G20 summit in November 2022.
At the San Francisco meeting, President Xi expressed personal fond memories of his stay in Iowa back in 1985 with a farm family. He remarked that the first U.S. city that he ever visited was San Francisco.
U.S. economic war against China continues
Despite the presence of and goodwill of many U.S. business leaders at the APEC meeting with and having dinner with President Xi, the U.S. economic war against China continues.
There has been no announcement by the White House that the trade and tech wars will cease any time soon. Seeing is believing, as the saying goes. Will the world see concrete steps to end the U.S. economic war against China anytime soon? Before the end of the Biden administration?
After taking office in January 2021, Joe Biden continued the Trump trade and tech wars against China. He also continued the military “pivot” to the Asia Pacific initiated by President Barack Obama under whom Biden was Vice President. The pivot called for some 60 percent of U.S. military power to be deployed in the Asia-Pacific region.
Not only has Biden continued the economic warfare against China unleashed by the Trump administration he has intensified it. Sweeping measures to block China’s technology development particularly in the semiconductor field were imposed by Biden. Congress passed major legislation to counter China in economy and technology.
Stabilizing and improving economic relations between China and the U.S. is, of course, a key priority. It was a hopeful sign that these top U.S. businessmen were present in San Francisco and expressed appreciation for President Xi’s efforts to better relations.
People-to-people relations whether in business, science, culture, education, or sports are fundamental to stabilizing and improving state-to-state relations over the long term. It is a hopeful sign that such engagement is now coming back between China and the U.S.
Indeed, President Xi gave warm-hearted attention to the U.S. businessmen present at the San Francisco events. Significantly, he also expressed that China would like to receive 50,000 U.S. students over the next five years.
Opportunities for U.S. business continue
There are, of course, many opportunities in China for U.S. investment and trade. The U.S. should be fully engaged on a global basis and not retreat into a dead end narrow zero-sum bloc mentality.
Despite the ongoing U.S. economic war against China, there are some hopeful signs, small but still noteworthy, emerging. For example, more direct flights between the U.S. and China are already scheduled. Last month, Chinese importers signed new agreements to buy U.S. agricultural products in bulk. Large soy bean purchases reflect this improvement in agricultural trade and are a good sign.
Another concrete sign of U.S. business interest in China was the participation of a large delegation of U.S. businesses in the China International Import Expo (CIIE) held in Shanghai November 5-10, led by a senior USDA official.
These are, of course, only small steps compared to broader cooperative economic relations prior to the Trump and Biden administrations.
The Belt and Road Initiative which was proposed by China in 2013 has become a major example of opportunity for U.S. business. Will Washington reassess its attitude toward the Belt and Road Initiative? The initiative has been open to the United States from its beginning. Over 150 countries have joined it, so why not the United States? It is not too late to participate as the door keeps open.
Not only did President Xi start the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013 but at that time he also put forward the concept of “a new type of relations between major powers”. That year, he presented this concept directly to President Obama at the Sunnylands informal summit in California. Unfortunately, the U.S. side rejected the proposal and geared up confrontational policies.
Atmospherics or real steps?
There were no really substantial “deliverables” revealed after the Xi-Biden summit. Minor topics of concern were covered in discussions and some small steps were taken.
For example, cooperation on counternarcotics was announced. The specific concern was fentanyl and the precursor chemicals needed to produce it. The drug is legal in the United States for veterinary and for human use by prescription. In the United States, it and its many chemical variations are classed as “controlled substances.” China had scheduled all fentanyl-related substances as a class.
Fentanyl requires special pharmaceutical grade facilities to manufacture. Internationally, India and Mexico have such equipment and facilities. The major flow of fentanyl into the United States is from Mexico. Given the Biden administration’s policy of an open southern border with Mexico the flow of fentanyl into the United States has been unceasing. Note that this represents a large flow of illicit drugs from Mexico across the border and not from China. Internal demand in the U.S. drives the criminal trade.
The United States and China did have good counternarcotics cooperation during the Obama administration and even during the Trump administration. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the U.S. Department of State have been involved with Chinese counterparts over the years. DEA has had an office in China and has cooperated with Chinese counterparts in a number of successful counternarcotics operations in China.
Reviving U.S.-China cooperation in counternarcotics is an important matter. Results will demonstrate whether it will be a success or will be atmospherics.
The restoration of military-to-military communication is another small but welcome step resulting from the Xi-Biden summit. Prior to Trump, the military-to-military relationship was improving under Obama with good communication and contacts.
In fact, during the Obama administration there were over 80 special U.S.-China working groups focused on a range of issues of mutual interest. They disappeared under Trump. The goal should be to revive such a broad array of working groups and to regularize and institutionalize their work.
Looking ahead at China-U.S. relations
While the U.S.-China Bali summit failed to improve relations, it is to be hoped that the just held San Francisco summit will mark a real change with real concrete and substantial deliverables in the coming months. A complicating factor is the uncertainty over the 2024 U.S. presidential elections and the run up to them. Will Biden continue to run for the presidency in 2024?
Because of the volatility of U.S. politics, it would be advisable to somehow institutionalize U.S.-China relations to keep them stable. A regular annual summit between presidents could be one important step toward this goal. Clearly, the United States and China must find what diplomats call a “modus vivendi”. Washington and Beijing must reject confrontation and find a path toward constructive and cooperative engagement and relations for the long term in the national interests of both peoples.
Dr. Clifford A Kiracofe is President of the Washington Institute for Peace and Development and former senior professional staff member of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.