Just weeks after President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, laid out competing visions of how the United States and China are vying for military, technological and political preeminence, their first face-to-face meeting as top leaders will test whether they can halt a downward spiral that has taken relations to the lowest level since President Richard Nixon began the opening to Beijing half a century ago.
Their scheduled meeting Monday in Indonesia will take place months after China brandished its military potential to choke off Taiwan, and the United States imposed a series of export controls devised to hobble China’s ability to produce the most advanced computer chips — necessary for its newest military equipment and crucial to competing in sectors like artificial intelligence and quantum computing.
Compounding the tension is Beijing’s partnership with Moscow, which has remained steadfast even after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Yet that relationship, denounced by the Biden administration, is so opaque that U.S. officials disagree on its true nature.
Whether it’s a partnership of convenience or a robust alliance, Beijing and Moscow share a growing interest in frustrating the American agenda, many in Washington believe. In turn, many in China see the combination of the U.S. export controls and NATO support for Ukraine as a foreshadowing of how Washington could try to contain China and stymie its claims to Taiwan, a self-ruled island.
“This is, in a sense, the first superpower summit of the Cold War Version 2.0,” said Evan S. Medeiros, a Georgetown University professor who was President Barack Obama’s top adviser on Asia-Pacific affairs. “Will both leaders discuss, even implicitly, the terms of coexistence amid competition? Or, by default, will they let loose the dogs of unconstrained rivalry?”
Tamping down expectations about the summit with Xi, American officials recently told reporters that they expected no joint statement on points of agreement to emerge. Still, Washington will dissect what Xi says publicly and privately, especially about Russia, Ukraine and Taiwan.
This month, Xi told the visiting German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, that China opposes “the threat or use of nuclear weapons,” an oblique but unusually public reproach to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s saber rattling with tactical nuclear weapons.
If Xi cannot say something similar with an American president next to him, one senior administration official noted, it will be telling. China sees Russia as a vital counterweight to Western power, and Xi may hesitate to criticize Putin in front of Biden.
“If Putin used nuclear weapons, he would become the public enemy of humankind, opposed by all countries, including China,” said Hu Wei, a foreign policy scholar in Shanghai. But, he added, “If Putin falls, the United States and the West will then focus on strategic containment of China.”
For American officials, the Xi-Putin relationship is a topic of internal debate. Colin Kahl, the No. 3 official in the Pentagon, told reporters Tuesday that Chinese leaders have “been much more willing to signal that this thing is edging toward an alliance as opposed to just a superficial partnership.” Biden seems doubtful. “I don’t think there’s a lot of respect that China has for Russia or for Putin,” he said the next day.
Xi and Biden have talked on the phone five times in the past 18 months. This will be different: For the first time since assuming the presidency, Biden will “sit in the same room with Xi Jinping, be direct and straightforward with him as he always is, and expect the same in return from Xi,” Jake Sullivan, the National Security Adviser, said at a White House briefing Thursday.
“There just is no substitute for this kind of leader-to-leader communication in navigating and managing such a consequential relationship,” Sullivan said.
During the past three decades, trips by American presidents to Beijing and Chinese presidents to Washington became relatively commonplace. Testy exchanges over disputes were often balanced by promises to cooperate on areas of mutual interest, whether climate change or containing North Korea’s nuclear program. For now, it is hard to imagine a meeting taking place in either capital, especially with China still under heavy COVID controls.
Summits on neutral ground, like this one in Bali before the Group of 20 meeting of leaders, have an increasingly Cold War feel — more about managing potential conflict than finding common ground. The rancorous distrust means that even short-term stabilization and cooperation on shared challenges, like stopping pandemics, could be fragile.
Neither side calls it a Cold War, a term evoking a world divided between Western and Soviet camps bristling with nuclear arsenals. And the differences are real between that era and this one, with its vast trade flows and technological commerce between China and Western powers.
The Apple iPhone and many other staples of American life are assembled almost entirely in China. Instead of trying to build a formal bloc of allies as the Soviets did, Beijing has sought to influence nations through major projects that create dependency, including wiring them with Chinese-made communications networks.
Even so, the declarations surrounding Xi’s appointment to a third term and Biden’s new national security, defense and nuclear strategies have described an era of growing global uncertainty heightened by competition — economic, military, technological, political — between their countries.
The anxieties have been magnified by China’s plans to expand and modernize its still relatively limited nuclear arsenal to one that could reach at least 1,000 warheads by 2030, according to the Pentagon. China sees threats in U.S.-led security initiatives, including proposals to help build nuclear-powered submarines for Australia.
“It may not be the Cold War, with a capital C and capital W, as in a replay of the U.S.-Soviet experience,” Medeiros said. But, he added, “because of China’s substantial capabilities and its global reach, this cold war will be more challenging in many ways than the previous one.”
The Biden administration last month issued extensive new restrictions on selling semiconductor technology to China, focusing on the multimillion-dollar machines needed to make the chips with the smallest circuitry and the fastest speeds. It was a clear effort to slow China’s progress in one of the few technological areas where it is still playing catch-up.
In a 48-page National Security Strategy document, Biden wrote that China “is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to advance that objective.” The U.S. National Defense Strategy paper, weeks later, declared that China “remains our most consequential strategic competitor for the coming decades.”
The stakes rose for the relationship after Xi, 69, secured a third five-year term as Communist Party leader in October and set in place a resolutely loyal leadership lineup likely to keep him in power even longer than that. At the party congress that crowned Xi, he warned of an increasingly perilous world, where unnamed foes — implicitly, the United States and allies — were trying to “blackmail, contain, blockade, and exert maximum pressure on China.”
Since then, Xi and his officials have repeated similar warnings. Wearing camouflage to visit a People’s Liberation Army command center, Xi told China’s military to steel for the intensifying challenges. “Hostile forces” were bent on blocking China’s rise, Ding Xuexiang, a top aide to Xi, wrote in People’s Daily, the party’s main newspaper.
“The United States regards our country as its main strategic rival and most severe long-term challenge, and is doing its utmost to contain us and beat us down,” said an article in Guangming Daily, another prominent party-run newspaper.
Xi’s speech to the congress last month suggested that his assessment of international trends has grown bleaker. That shift may reflect worries about the repercussions of the war in Ukraine, and vanished hopes that Biden would take a milder approach to China than the Trump administration did.
The Biden administration’s support for Taiwan has become a sore point.
In early August, China launched menacing military drills around Taiwan after Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the island as a show of support. Biden has suggested that the United States would support Taiwan militarily if China attempted to take it by force, firmer wording than Washington’s formal position. Each time he has talked about direct involvement in Taiwan’s defense, his aides have rushed to assure that policy has not changed, while not disputing Biden has made it less ambiguous.
Despite their differences, Biden and Xi want to avoid pent-up tensions exploding into a crisis that could wreak economic havoc.
“I’ve told him: I’m looking for competition, not — not conflict,” Biden told reporters at the White House on Wednesday about his relationship with Xi. Their ties go back more than a decade, to when both were vice presidents.
Biden said that he and Xi may discuss “what he believes to be in the critical national interests of China, what I know to be the critical interests of the United States, and to determine whether or not they conflict with one another. And if they do, how to resolve it and how to work it out.”
Ahead of the meeting, Xi has also put on a somewhat friendlier demeanor.
He told the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations that he wants to “find the right way to get along.” Zhao Lijian, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, repeated that point at a regular briefing Friday and said Beijing would defend its “sovereignty, security and development interests,” while adding that “the U.S. and China should move toward each other, managing and controlling disagreements in a proper way and promoting mutually beneficial cooperation.”
Xi wants to put China’s growth back on track after heavy blows from COVID restrictions and problems in the housing market. He also wants to prevent tighter rules on purchases of high-end technology, which could spook investors and slow his plans for upgrading the economy.