By Lee H. Hamilton
U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met for four hours last month on an estate near San Francisco. That, in and of itself, is important. At a time of serious tensions between the world’s two most powerful countries, maintaining communication is essential.
Even if such talks don’t always produce breakthrough agreements, it’s vital that they continue. In the saying usually attributed to Winston Churchill, it’s better to jaw-jaw than to war-war.
And the U.S.-China relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world. As it evolves, it will have a profound impact on the future. The relationship is critical, not only to the two countries but to the rest of the globe. For it to succeed, we need to keep talking to one another.
Biden and Xi met in mid-November in conjunction with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. The White House characterized their conversation as “candid and constructive.” Biden said the U.S. and China are competitors but don’t have to be adversaries. The world, he said, expects us to manage the competition responsibly and not let it veer into open conflict.
The meeting, along with related conversations by U.S. and Chinese diplomats, did produce concrete results. Importantly, the two sides agreed to resume military-to-military communication, which is essential for ensuring that misunderstandings don’t escalate to warfare. China suspended the communication after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan last year, and the situation worsened when the U.S. shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon in February.
Xi also said China will crack down on the export of chemical precursors that Mexican drug cartels use to make fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 50 times more potent than heroin. Fentanyl is responsible for 70% of overdoses and poisonings in the U.S., according to the Drug Enforcement Agency.
The leaders also agreed to launch a dialogue on the risks of artificial intelligence and to step up efforts to slow climate change, including by reducing emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. And they promoted efforts to strengthen business, trade and person-to-person relationships: for example, an increase in the number of commercial flights between the U.S. and China.
The talks took place as the U.S.-China relationship seemed to be overshadowed by events, especially the bloody fighting between Israel and Hamas and the war between Ukraine and Russia.
Meanwhile, China’s economy has stagnated. Its “zero COVID” policy weakened business activity. Its fertility rate is low, and its population has begun to decline by some estimates.
Unemployment among young people topped 20% this year. A few years ago, Xi was promoting China’s state-controlled economic model as a superior alternative to America’s liberal capitalism. It doesn’t look so promising today.
The U.S. and China have many interests and challenges in common, but we also have real disagreements. We accuse China of engaging in unfair trade practices and industrial espionage. We take issue with its human-rights abuses in Xinjiang province and elsewhere. We push back against its aggression against our allies in East and Southeast Asia and its threats toward Taiwan. Biden has called Xi a dictator, and he didn’t back down from that description when reporters questioned him last month.
Domestic politics further confound the relationship. American politicians know they can win points by bashing China or by accusing their rivals of being soft on China.
Certainly, China does some things that displease us greatly. Balancing these concerns — working on our common interests while managing our conflicts — is hard work in diplomacy, but it is absolutely essential. The U.S.-China relationship, while likely to remain contentious, needs to be strengthened if possible. At the very least, it needs to be managed and maintained. The whole world depends upon it.