Biden and Xi both have good reasons to end the summit with a -temporary- bang

XI Biden

Alicia García Herrero (Natixis) | The importance of the much-expected meeting between President Biden and President Xi in San Francisco cannot be understated, no matter the likely shallowness of the outcomes.

The fact that there have only been two face-to-face since Biden took over from President Trump says it all about the importance of this encounter as the pinnacle of a series of meetings to step up dialogue between the two world superpowers. Compared to their first meeting, at the sidelines of the G20 Meeting in Bali, the current encounter will happen on US soil, after months of high-level bilateral meetings to prepare for it. 
This summit is clearly long overdue when judging by the huge amount of thorny issues to discuss. Decisions would be needed on bilateral issues, such as the US export controls on semiconductors or China’s exports of fentanyl, to multilateral ones, such as the Israel-Hamas war, that of Ukraine as well as climate change. Taiwan probably remains the biggest issue in the run-up to Taiwan’s presidential elections next January. 

The reality is that there should be no expectation that the upcoming summit will bring any immediate solution to any of those issues. No major breakthrough in US technological containment on China will happen nor will China stop pushing an anti-Western (and surely anti-US) narrative especially in the Global South. In the same vein, China’s alignment with Russia will not change because of this summit nor will China’s position in the Israel-Gaza conflict. 

This summit is all about managing strategic competition between the US and China without breaking it, i.e., preventing a military conflict by ensuring that the channels of communication remain open at the highest level. Both leaders need to show restraint for their own sake. President Xi is facing mounting pressure at home due to a weak economy but also the impression among at least part of the Chinese elites that the most important diplomatic relation for China, namely that with the US, is being mismanaged. President Biden has its own good reasons to push for a successful summit. To start with, the 2024 Presidential elections are getting closer so any surprise is bound to have a very negative impact on voting. Biden has probably learned the lesson from the latter part of the Obama administration, namely that a crisis in China, as that which started in the second half of 2015 – can severely affect the US stock market and those of the rest of the world. 

Given the above alignment of interests, both sides have started making concessions so as to start the summit on a good footing and avoid potential confrontation. On China’s side, the freeze in Boeing purchases is about to be lifted. This should help lift Chinese imports from the US, which have been falling for a long time. On the US side, the biggest concession has already happened, as the most senior officials from the Biden administration have been traveling to Beijing for the last few months to initiate a much-needed dialogue in preparation for this summit. Beyond that, it seems difficult that Biden will make any further announcements since he needs to tread a fine line between making the summit a success and being accused of a pro-China approach by the Republicans, right before the elections and with a very negative public opinion on China.

In that regard, the current summit resembles those between US and ex-USSR leaders in the third phase of the Cold War, from 1985 until the Collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. At that time, the main reason for holding such summits was to reduce tensions so as not to trespass the red lines that each part had imposed on the other. In the same way, Biden’s push for increased dialogue for the last few months seems to have the very same objective with the red line potentially being China’s military support for Russia in its war against Ukraine or, even more likely, the fear of conflict in the Taiwan Straits given increasing tensions.

All in all, the upcoming Biden-Xi summit is clearly consequential but not as a solution to the most urgent bilateral and global problems. This summit has the only – but crucial – objective of keeping dialogue open between the two superpowers, reducing the likelihood of a global military conflict.