President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping took steps this week to ease tensions across the Indo-Pacific, opening a new chapter after a tumultuous period of uncertainty in the region.
At a high-stakes Wednesday meeting, Biden and Xi reopened military-to-military communications, which could help the countries navigate mishaps in the South China Sea, and they had a candid discussion about the future of Taiwan and signaled war was not on the horizon.
Still, experts say the Biden-Xi meeting does not remove many of the lingering tensions between China and the U.S. on the economic and political world order, the tense subject of Taiwan and Beijing’s sovereignty claims across the South China Sea.
“This meeting is not a breakthrough in resolving the strategic mistrust that characterizes this relationship. But it is an important step forward on getting the relationship on a manageable track,” said Rorry Daniels, managing director of the Asia Society Policy Institute.
Biden and Xi met in Woodside, Calif., on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific economic summit in San Francisco. The closely watched meeting came after relations between the nations deteriorated following the U.S. shootdown of a Chinese spy balloon in February.
But the leaders sent a message that conflict is not inevitable and relations are stable, even if they remain competitive nations. That optimism was on full public display, with Biden and Xi discussing key topics for four hours at a country estate and afterward taking a walk around a garden together.
Biden said the meeting resulted in “positive steps” between the world’s largest economies and said more diplomatic talks would follow.
“We’re talking to our competitors,” he said at a press conference after the meeting. “Being blunt with one another so there’s no misunderstanding is a key element to maintaining global stability and delivering for the American people.”
And Xi told Biden and U.S. officials directly that “planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed.”
“For two large countries like China and the United States, turning their back on each other is not an option,” he said.
The reopening of military-to-military communications between senior level officials was a sought-after goal for the U.S. after the channels were cut off last year.
China blocked off military communications after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) traveled to Taiwan in August 2022. The visit also prompted unprecedented military drills from Chinese forces, as Beijing has expressed concern about the U.S. sending arms to Taiwan and displaying public support for the self-governing island nation.
Military communications are integral to avoid escalation in tense regions such as the Indo-Pacific, and even the U.S. and Russia have maintained open lines during the Ukraine war.
Since 2021, the U.S. has accused Chinese pilots of engaging in 180 risky and aggressive maneuvers near American aircraft in the South China Sea and surrounding region.
After the Xi meeting, Biden said the U.S. was now “back to direct, open, clear, direct communications.”
“Vital miscalculations on either side can cause real, real trouble with a country like China or any other major country,” he said. “We made real progress there.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, speaking Thursday in Indonesia during a trip to meet with key allies across the Indo-Pacific, said it was unclear if China would stop the behavior but added he was “encouraged” by the announcement.
“There is no substitute for consistent and substantive dialogue between senior leaders,” Austin said. “We will continue to need the mechanism to manage crises and make sure we prevent things from spiraling out of control from time to time.”
David Ochmanek, a senior international and defense researcher at the RAND Corporation, said the resumption of military channels was a good sign and could help to resolve tensions, but it does not solve the broader issue.
“If they don’t change, then this doesn’t necessarily have much meaning,” he said. “Reopening the channels doesn’t, in and of itself, reduce the possibility of mishaps, accidents, escalating tensions and things like that, [but] it does offer a relief valve if something risky happens.”
Biden and Xi also discussed the complex situation of Taiwan, undoubtedly a touchy subject for both leaders as tensions have flared over the island nation in the past few years.
Biden said he reiterated that the U.S. supports the One China policy, which acknowledges Taiwan is part of China but allows for informal American relations with Taipei.
Xi said at the meeting that Taiwan was the most serious issue and that he was committed to reunifying with the country, according to a senior U.S. official who spoke to Reuters. The Chinese leader said reunification through peace was preferred but also described instances in which force would be used.
Ochmanek said he was not surprised major progress was not made on Taiwan.
“It would have been astonishing if the Chinese had shown any flexibility about Taiwan. I mean, they’ve been unambiguous about this. They call it a core national interest,” he said. “And likewise, it would have been both surprising and a mistake for President Biden to show any reduction in our determination to support Taiwan.”
Other tensions: human rights, China’s military
Xi signaled Wednesday that nations should not seek to “remodel” the other, which could have been a reference to U.S. allegations of human rights abuses of the ethnic Uyghurs and Chinese crackdowns on democracy in Hong Kong.
And the meeting did not appear to address tensions across the South China Sea, where the U.S. has accused Chinese warships of harassing its allies, such as the Philippines, and of exercising rights over parts of the sea that the international community rejects.
Andrew Michta, director of the Scowcroft Strategy Initiative and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, added that “China’s military buildup is the biggest elephant in the room” that was left out of the picture this week.
“This rapid shift in relative military capabilities continues to destabilize the region, and China’s close alliance with Russia raises the risk of Beijing gaining access to some of Russia’s advanced military technology,” Michta wrote in an analysis.
The two leaders this week did make inroads on China cracking down on illicit fentanyl production, a major win for Biden. And both leaders promised to cooperate on advanced artificial intelligence (AI), which comes as the Pentagon is accelerating a program to develop thousands of autonomous systems, fueling fears of an arms race on the relatively unknown field of AI weapons. Biden said they would remain engaged on the topic, including on what is acceptable to use and what might be dangerous.
Although the Biden administration has touted the talks as good progress, some Republicans have accused the president of catering to the Chinese leader and of failing to win anything significant from the meeting.
“While unsurprising, I am nonetheless disappointed the Biden administration conducted yet another fruitless meeting with the Chinese Communist Party,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a statement.
“Having these senior level meetings without getting anything in return and without having any desired outcomes sets a horrible precedent and makes the United States look incredibly weak.”
It’s also not clear if the breakthroughs made this week will last.
Biden and Xi met on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit last year and relayed a similar message of bridging a divide, only for tensions to rise sharply a few months later when the U.S. shot down the Chinese spy balloon.
But Daniels, from the Asia Society, said the summit delivered wins for both Biden and Xi as China struggles with a weakened economy: The American leader touted Chinese efforts to address fentanyl and military channels, and the Chinese leader telegraphed to investors he has a stable relationship with the U.S., a major economic partner.
“But they got something even bigger than that,” added Daniels. “And that’s to show the rest of the world that they’re committed to manage this relationship responsibly.”