McManus: Odds Against Biden, Xi Stabilizing US-China Ties

President Biden is scheduled to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping this week on the Indonesian island of Bali, their first in-person summit since Biden came to the White House.

The stakes are always high at the summits of superpowers, and this is no exception. After months of near-collisions over Taiwan, both governments appear to want to lower the temperature. Another good sign: Earlier this month, Xi publicly admonished his ally Vladimir Putin to stop threatening Ukraine with Russian nuclear weapons.

But there are few other reasons for optimism. US officials carefully keep expectations low; his main goal, an aide said last week, is just to “build a floor under the relationship.” Even that modest result is not guaranteed.

“The American side wants to prove it [the two countries] they’re not locked in a downward spiral,” said Evan Medeiros, a former China adviser to President Obama. “I think both sides will be able to say the right things to stabilize the relationship, but none of the underlying issues are going to be resolved.”

US-China summits have once tried to focus on areas where the two sides could cooperate, such as climate change and North Korea. But those dreams of collaboration are mostly a memory now: As China’s economic and military power has grown, the two countries have increasingly seen each other as threats.

Two particularly difficult issues stand in the way of progress.

One is familiar: the standoff over Taiwan, the US-backed island that China claims as part of its national territory. The other is newer: the US ban. USA of selling advanced technology to Beijing has sparked a “semiconductor war”.

The United States and China have long been at odds over Taiwan, but tensions have risen over the past year. China has stepped up its military incursions into the waters and airspace around the island. Biden responded by declaring that if Taiwan is attacked, the United States will defend it with military force, hardening a previously ambiguous American policy.

The confrontation could easily become more dangerous. Taiwan’s upcoming presidential election campaign begins next year, and some candidates are expected to call for a formal declaration of independence, a move China has said would cross an impermissible “red line.”

If Republicans take over the US House of Representatives as expected, they are likely to push for tougher pro-Taiwan policies, including increased military sales to the island. Preventing this precarious confrontation from sliding into war will not be easy.

The semiconductor war is a new and more intense version of an old problem: the United States’ complaint that China steals American technology and uses it to modernize Chinese military hardware.

Last month, after years of largely ineffective regulation, the Biden administration imposed new limits on the sale of advanced semiconductors to China, a move explicitly aimed at a central component of Xi’s strategy to accelerate Beijing’s rise as a scientific competitor. economic and military.

China responded with furious protests, calling for US export controls. the equivalent of an economic blockade. But he did not retaliate with any equivalent trade measures; experts suspect that Xi does not want to take actions that could harm the Chinese economy.

“I think Xi will raise that issue at the summit,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund, a US think tank. “He’ll say it’s evidence that the U.S. is pursuing a strategy of containment against China. … But I don’t think there’s any way forward. If anything, the administration wants to use the same tool in areas beyond semiconductors.”

US officials say they still hope to restart talks with China on areas where the two countries can cooperate, such as food security in the developing world or climate change.

At a more basic level, they hope to revive American ideas for “confidence-building measures,” including a long-standing proposal for a “hotline” communications link between the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii and China’s Eastern Command .

But even those modest steps don’t seem achievable this week.

“The Chinese are not interested,” Glaser said.

“Opening communication channels with China doesn’t really solve other problems,” Medeiros added. “The trajectory is unlikely to change [of the relationship]which is going towards an intensified competition”.

In the tradition of superpower summits, Biden and Xi no doubt hope to declare their meeting a success, if only by the hard-to-measure standard of stabilizing US-China relations.

Even if they do, the two countries still face far more opportunities for conflict than cooperation. The problem between the US and China is likely to get worse before it gets better.

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