China’s internet is typically one of the most virulently anti-American places you can find, full of nationalist rhetoric painting the United States as an empire in decline and an enemy of China, determined to stop the country’s rise.
Not this week. As Chinese President Xi Jinping wrapped up a trip to California, where he met with his U.S. counterpart, Joe Biden, and top U.S. business leaders, Chinese social media and state-run publications were full of positivity about the relationship between the superpowers.
“A new vision for the future of Sino-U.S. relations,” read a headline in the People’s Daily, an official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party. On Weibo, a highly censored, X-like platform, trending topics were dominated by the Xi-Biden meeting, including a comment by Mr. Xi urging both sides to “gather the power of the two peoples to advance the cause of Sino-U.S. friendship.”
Such hunky-dory rhetoric may not last, however. After the disintegration of the relationship under the Trump administration, which launched a trade war with China, there were great hopes for a reset following Mr. Biden’s inauguration in January, 2021. These were quickly dashed by tensions over Taiwan. When the two leaders met in Indonesia last year, Beijing started pushing what it called the “Bali consensus” as a new base for the relationship, but this was derailed by a spat over a Chinese spy balloon.
It seemed for a moment that the friendly ties modelled by Mr. Xi and Mr. Biden in San Francisco would be even more abrupt, when just hours after their meeting the U.S. leader said Mr. Xi was “a dictator.”
“Look, he is,” Mr. Biden said. “He’s a dictator in the sense that he’s a guy who runs a country that is a communist country that’s based on a form of government totally different than ours.”
A video seemed to show U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has been driving the effort to improve ties with Beijing, wincing at the remark, which China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry described as “extremely wrong and irresponsible political manipulation.” A question about the dictator remark was left off an official transcript of a Foreign Affairs Ministry news conference Thursday, however, and it has not been played up in Chinese media, suggesting Beijing is happy to regard it as one of Mr. Biden’s classic flubs.
Both China and the U.S. have reasons for wanting to tamp down competition right now and put the relationship on autopilot as much as possible. Mr. Biden is headed into a busy election year, when his focus will naturally be on domestic policies, even as Washington juggles wars in Ukraine and the Middle East. Meanwhile, Mr. Xi is facing severe economic challenges at home, which have not been helped by tensions with the U.S., and is trying to reassure foreign investors that Beijing welcomes their presence in China amid a push by the West for derisking and decoupling.
Jude Blanchette, the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the meeting was “as much about future proofing across the next 12 months” as it was about promoting any extra engagement or massive breakthroughs.
Agreements struck Wednesday were all about stability: reopening military-to-military communications and agreeing to further talks on climate, artificial intelligence and drug trafficking.
“We’ve made some important progress, I believe,” Mr. Biden said. “The thing that I find most assuring is he raised, and I fully agreed, that if either one of us have any concern about anything between our two nations or happening in our region, we should pick up the phone and call one another.”
Speaking to reporters in Asia on Friday, Sarah Beran, the U.S. National Security Council director for China and Taiwan, said, “We find this direct leader-to-leader diplomacy is critical for maintaining channels of communication and responsibly managing competition.”
Mr. Xi’s new largesse has been extended beyond the U.S. to other rivals, too. After a year of frosty relations between Beijing and Tokyo – in part owing to a dispute over the discharge of treated water from the Fukushima nuclear plant – Mr. Xi held a bilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Friday and said the two countries should “focus on common interests” and reaffirm their “strategic relationship of mutual benefit.”
But while both Beijing and Washington seem sincere about their desire to stabilize the relationship, there are major hurdles ahead, chief among them January’s presidential election in Taiwan.
Mr. Xi said Wednesday that Taiwan “remains the most important and sensitive issue in China-U.S. relations” and urged Mr. Biden to disavow Taiwanese independence and stop arms sales to the self-ruled island.
In the past, Mr. Biden has appeared to suggest the U.S. would intervene in a conflict over Taiwan – straying from Washington’s previous policy of ambiguity on this issue – but was more careful in his remarks this week.
Ms. Beran said the President emphasized the U.S. commitment to “peace, stability and the status quo,” while making clear that Chinese “military coercion around Taiwan or associated with the election is absolutely unacceptable.”
For all the positivity this week, analysts were skeptical about whether the “San Francisco vision” would hold up or fall by the wayside as quickly as the “Bali consensus.”
“Xi is seeking a short-term, tactical pause in U.S.-China competition, hoping to buy time so that he can address China’s economic problems,” said David Sacks, an Asia studies fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. But Mr. Xi’s “conviction that the United States represents the primary threat to the Chinese Communist Party remains unchanged,” as does his belief that “the East is rising and the West is declining.”
Colleen Cottle, the deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, said the durability of the new rapprochement “will only become apparent in the weeks and months ahead.”
“When the next unexpected bump in the relationship inevitably comes – the next surveillance balloon or cyber incident, or perhaps an even nearer miss between Chinese and U.S. forces in the South China Sea – will the two leaders really be able to pick up the phone and talk it out? Time will tell.”