US-China relations are now more about crisis prevention

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US President Joe Biden shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping as they meet on the sidelines of the G20 leaders’ summit in Bali, Indonesia, November 14, 2022.

Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

BEIJING – After another rocky year of tensions between the US and China, the presidents of the two countries are expected to meet this week in person for the second time since Joe Biden took office.

It will be a rare summit before the US presidential election cycle begins in earnest. Taking a tough stance on China, the world’s second largest economy, has become one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement. Biden plans to run for re-election.

“The focus will be on expanding communication to be low[er] tail risks in the relationship and prevent a crisis that neither leader is looking for,” said Michael Hirson, head of China Research at 22V Research.

“Flash points such as Taiwan and the South China Sea must be carefully controlled,” he said. important in Taiwan in January and will culminate with the US presidential election.”

US-China tensions have escalated in the past several years, starting with tariffs under the Trump administration and spilling over into broader technical restrictions under the Biden administration.

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A dispute in early February over a Chinese spy balloon flying in US airspace revealed how fragile relations have become – the incident pushed the two countries to cancel already limited high-level talks.

In April, during this period of disagreement, the Washington, DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies published a report that described relations between the US and China as they seemed “caught in a vicious cycle that was getting worse. “

“This translates into a stalemate – and, indeed, a spiraling tension – that goes even further than the usual ‘security dilemma’ in which each side takes measures to protect itself that then generates insecurity for the other person, who then responds in kindness. “, said the report.

Right after the [Biden-Xi] the meeting is likely to mark a high level of circulation for bilateral relations

The mood began to improve this summer after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken finally visited Beijing in June, followed by visits by several other senior officials.

In early October, US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and five other US senators representing both the Republican and Democratic parties had an 80-minute meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

But both sides are still waiting for more action.

“The current trend in China-US relations is one of easing,” said Shen Yamei, director of the American Studies department and associate researcher at the China Institute of International Studies. .

“This concession is a relaxation of the atmosphere,” she said in Mandarin, translated by CNBC. “There have been no real changes.”

Export controls

During this week’s meeting, Shen expects the Chinese side to lift US export controls and investment restrictions.

The Biden administration has banned US companies from selling high-end technology, particularly in semiconductors, to Chinese companies and has tried to block US investments in such Chinese technology.

US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo during a trip in August said “no” to China’s demands to ease the restrictions and called them “national security issues”.

Chinese Vice Premier He Lifeng also raised the issues during briefings with US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in San Francisco on November 10, according to state media.

“Besides Taiwan, export controls are the main concern for Beijing, but there is no political room in Washington to roll back the existing controls,” said Gabriel Wildau, managing director at the consulting firm. Teneo, in a note.

“The result immediately after the [Biden-Xi] “The main question is whether this high point extends to a plateau or whether political pressures are triggering a new cycle of decline,” he said. “As previously discussed, the period since June has provided an opportunity to stabilize relations; after the meeting, this window may close.”

Taiwan is due to hold its presidential election in January, and a more independent winner could further anger Beijing.

Beijing considers Taiwan a part of its territory, with no right to conduct diplomatic relations independently. The US recognizes Beijing as the sole government of China but maintains unofficial relations with Taiwan, a democratically self-governing island.

While addressing the US House of Representatives in August 2021, Nancy Pelosi became the highest-ranking US official to visit Taiwan in 25 years. The visit forced Beijing to suspend climate talks with the US, one of the few areas of potential cooperation.

Areas of cooperation

The Biden administration has said that the US is competing with China, while looking to ensure that it “does not drift into conflict.” “

“The Biden-Xi meeting could include a commitment to cooperation or the establishment of a formal bilateral working group on the safe use of artificial intelligence,” said Teneo’s Wildau.

He said that “the two leaders could commit to cooperation and coordination to provide humanitarian aid to Gaza, ensure the passage of grain through the Black Sea, and support the reconstruction of after the war in Gaza and Ukraine. “

The US remains China’s largest trading partner on a single-country basis.

However, Shen pointed out that trust between the US and China is still very low.

“No one believes what [the other] saying now,” she said.

Building the way

Goodwill efforts have ramped up in the weeks leading up to Wednesday’s planned summit local time between Biden and Xi in San Francisco, along with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting.

For example, more direct flights between the US and China are starting again from a low base.

Chinese commodity importers in October signed the first agreements since 2017 to buy US agricultural products in bulk, according to a statement from the US embassy in Beijing.

China’s Ministry of Commerce announced last week that it was gathering information in an effort to address unequal treatment of foreign businesses in China compared to domestic businesses – a long-standing business complaint. long

But, on a cultural note, the three remaining giant pandas in the US on loan from Beijing returned to China last week due to an expiring contract. China has loaned pandas to countries around the world as a diplomatic tool.

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And in a somewhat surprising build-up to this week’s summit, China only confirmed Xi’s upcoming travel plans on Friday night – just as the Philadelphia Orchestra was wrapping up a concert in Beijing to commemorate him 50 years since their concert in the country in 1973. .

It was a time when the US began to formalize its relationship with Communist-run Beijing. The two normalized their relationship in 1979.

Biden and Xi both sent letters for the 50th anniversary concert, which were read before the show.

“Despite everything that is missing, the Philadelphia Orchestra is still coming to China,” Matias Tarnopolsky, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra, told reporters after Friday’s concert.

“Even in the worst of times the Philadelphia Orchestra has come and in the best of times the Philadelphia Orchestra has come,” said Tarnopolsky. He said the orchestra plans to return to China in 2024, and in the years later.

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