Opinion | Will the APEC summit herald a breakthrough in US-China ties
By Tom Fowdy
Chinese leader Xi Jinping is visiting the United States on Wednesday to attend the APEC summit in San Francisco. This will be his first visit to the USA since the Obama Presidency, and the first since US-China relations fell off a cliff starting from Trump. Here, he will hold a summit with Joe Biden, which by most counts will be a diplomatic breakthrough of sorts.
Despite other disruptive global events, and also a shocking start to the year with the "Spy Balloon" incident, US-China ties have in some areas stabilized. Although this has coincided with growing US tech sanctions on Beijing, diplomacy between the two countries has become more balanced and Washington has carefully toned-down hostile rhetoric over some issues, such as recently, Taiwan, while also replacing the rhetoric of "decoupling" with "de-risking" and talking more about a "managed competition".
It seems the two countries made the collective agreement to step back from the brink and prevent a truly adversarial relationship. In line with these easing conditions, some things have changed, more Americans are visiting China again, including large numbers of politicians such as senators and state governors, the recent delegation to the recent expo in Shanghai was very large, and there is a renewed sense of "normality" about things. The impression that China is becoming a "Soviet Union" like adversary seems more diminished these days.
As a result, Xi Jinping's visit to San Francisco is likely to add to this renewed sense of security and diminishing of risk, which will be welcomed by the international community especially as conflicts rage in other parts of the world. However, expectations will nonetheless remain low, that's because the strategic reality between the two countries is unlikely to significantly change. The US will continue to view China as its largest state-based competitor for hegemony in the spheres of military, technology and economics, and with the Presidential election looming, it seems unlikely that the Biden administration will want a display of weakness on its home territory.
That has of course been a running problem with US-China relations, the Presidential administration has repeatedly shown that it is easily captured by cycles of domestic politics which impedes its decision-making. The balloon incident was one such saga. During these incidents, wherein right-wing politicians and the media create large-scale hysteria, the White House normally caves and wields the appearance of being "tough", in this case deciding to shoot down the balloon purely for political theatrics. They are terrified of appearing weak on China and allowing the opposition to capture that narrative, which limits the space for protracted engagement as well as compromise and concessions.
However, the best way of course to deviate from such a situation is to of course engage in conciliatory diplomacy, establish a paradigm shift and reduce the political space of those affirming China to be an "enemy." In these circumstances, that is not fully possible, but ultimately it hinges on not giving your enemies and opportunity and therefore allowing engagement to take the centre ground again. Of course, if the administration is also not deliberately amplifying anti-China causes, such as Xinjiang, Taiwan, etc that makes it easier. There are some things, such as the "America First" consensus in the field of protectionism and industry, that cannot be changed.
The United States is what it is in the form of a highly corporatist state which will always undermine the competing industries of above friends and foes to affirm its overseas dominance. Similarly, nor should we expect the Military-Industrial Complex and the pursuit of US encirclement of China to change either. While Taiwan has technically died down in terms of rhetoric, the US continues to arm them. Similarly, South China Sea tensions are also surging because of Ferdinand Macros Jr's decision to take a more confrontational posture with Beijing over it. The two powers can agree to de-escalate and communicate more amongst other things, but it is unlikely in an event the competing strategic interests can change.
In this case, what we should be thankful for in respect to the upcoming summit is that the risk of war between the two countries seems to have been averted. However, we must understand that a lot can change in the US. What will the Presidential election be like? What happens if Trump returns to office and restores extremists like Mike Pompeo to influential posts, who engineered the decline in relations in the first place? There are many uncertainties and many factors to take into account as Xi meets with Biden in San Francisco. Things are going well for now, but will they improve? And will they last? US-China competition will continue, one can only hope the outlook is rosy.
The author is a well-seasoned writer and analyst with a large portfolio related to China topics, especially in the field of politics, international relations and more. He graduated with an Msc. in Chinese Studies from Oxford University in 2018.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of DotDotNews.
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