With Washington and Beijing agreeing in principle that their two top leaders will meet virtually before the end of 2021, analysts are divided on whether a meeting between President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping is the only way to repair strained U.S.-China relations.
Some analysts believe a meeting will ease tensions. Others who spoke to VOA Mandarin argued that even with a meeting between the top leaders, restarting bilateral relations will be challenging given the complexity of the issues and the long-term tension between the nations.
Evan Medeiros, a professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and former President Barack Obama’s top Asia-Pacific adviser, suggested that only the top leaders can restart a dialogue between the two countries.
“There’s really no other approach at this time that has as great a chance of working as that, because of the way the Chinese system is structured, because of how powerful Xi Jinping is, because of how centralized decision-making is,” he told CNBC.
“I think the Biden administration is right to say not that they want to cut out the middlemen, but they want to use that top-level engagement between Biden and Xi to sort of set the overall tone and direction of the relationship,” he added.
On October 6, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee and director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, held a six-hour meeting in Zurich, Switzerland.
This was their first in-person meeting since two days of talks in March. That encounter touched on China's actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Tibet, Taiwan and cyberspace.
The recent talks included discussion of similar issues, according to a White House statement.
Both sides called the Zurich meeting candid and productive. They announced that Biden and Xi would, in principle, hold a virtual meeting by year’s end. The last time the heads of the two nations met formally was in 2017, when then-President Donald Trump visited Xi in Beijing in November. The two met informally on the sidelines of the 2019 G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan.
Carla Freeman, a senior China expert at the Washington-based United States Institute for Peace, told VOA Mandarin that a reset of the bilateral relationship seems unlikely.
“Relations between the U.S. and China are fraught across a range of issues. Highly sensitive issues including Taiwan and maritime issues involving US allies and partners appear particularly at risk of escalating, but of course there are other issues involving trade and technology that are areas of ongoing friction,” she told VOA in an email.
According to Freeman, the best route now is engaging in diplomatic efforts directed toward economic “recoupling” to help provide some positive momentum in the bilateral relationship.
U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai used “recoupling” at the Q & A session after a recent speech on the Biden administration’s China trade policy at CSIS, a Washington think tank. The term means reducing the U.S. dependency on China by creating “a trade relationship with China where we are occupying strong and robust positions in the supply chain.” Tai did not use the term in her speech.
Drew Thompson, visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and a former defense official in charge of U.S.-China military-to-military relations, told VOA Mandarin that he hasn’t seen signs that either side is seeking to recalibrate relations.
“Both sides are pursuing their interests, and the majority of their interests and political priorities do not appear to overlap,” he said.
Thompson pointed out that Xi is focused on achieving China's national rejuvenation, not improving the U.S.-China relationship. Many of China’s policy concepts, such as dual circulation, are designed to achieve Beijing's overall objective without the support of the United States, he said.
Dual circulation is part of China’s plan to become self-reliant in terms of resources and technology and in terms of demand through its domestic market and markets developed in tandem with its global infrastructure programs under the Belt and Road Initiative, according to Bruegel, a think tank in Brussels, Belgium.
“Beijing is not interested or open to discussing any of the long-standing differences in the bilateral relationship and uses dialogues for the purpose of stating their resolve not to change or accommodate the U.S. on these intractable issues,” Thompson added.
According to Thompson, Washington is more focused on preventing the relationship with China from becoming dangerously unstable and building the U.S. society and economy.
Bilateral talks on security issues, trade and climate change show few signs of productivity, he added.
Thompson said it is telling that Xi is not participating at the upcoming G-20 economic forum and COP26, the United Nations climate change conference. His absence underscores Beijing's inward focus and the low priority placed on improving China's foreign relations, he added.
Some Chinese experts are warning that Beijing is overly optimistic about U.S.-China relations. Shi Yinhong, a professor at China’s Renmin University and an adviser to China’s Cabinet, said at a book launch on October 12 in Beijing that the relationship between the two nations remains strained.
"The relationship between China and the U.S. is now in a situation where tensions are still high but it is frozen or suspended there, compared with the past eight months, and it will not significantly ease in the foreseeable future," he was quoted as saying in the South China Morning Post. "China is a bit overly optimistic now, Chinese people always have a short memory – if the U.S. president smiles or something, they get excited."
Freeman said that the Biden administration has made clear it shares the Trump administration’s strategic concerns about China.
She added that although the relationship is characterized on the U.S. side as strategic competition, if the two nations find some areas to work together on, it could become “a competitive stakeholder relationship,” which would involve a mutual commitment to working constructively on global issues.
Yet Freeman told VOA Mandarin that Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang are issues that might lead to increasing friction between the two. Yang spoke of a “red line” on the topics in a February speech.
“These issues are going to continue to be areas of discord in the relationship because they are where the two countries clash ideologically, China asserts the non-interference principle against the U.S. critique and has sought to paint U.S. criticisms about its actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong as part of a broader effort to destabilize China,” Freeman said. “The Biden administration for its part has made promoting democracy and human rights a central element of its diplomacy, making what is happening in China, as an increasingly globally influential actor, a core concern.”