Nine months into Joe Biden’s presidency, the two sides finally appear to be trying to ease tensions stemming from the Trump administration – though U.S. complaints about Chinese policies on trade, Taiwan and other issues have diminished slightly.
A closed meeting in Zurich on Wednesday between senior Chinese foreign policy adviser Yang Jiechi and White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan was not accompanied by the public outcry exhibited at previous meetings.
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After six hours of negotiations, the United States unveiled an agreement in principle on a virtual summit between Biden and the Chinese leader Xi Jinping before the end of the year. The two have spoken on the phone twice since Biden became president in January, but did not hold a formal meeting.
Big differences divide what, by many goals, are the world’s two most powerful nations, while fighting for what each sees as its rightful place in the world order. Some disagreements over regional security and trade and technology may be incompatible, but successful talks can address them and prevent any contagion that hampers cooperation in other areas such as climate change.
“I do not think this marks the turnaround, and somehow we will have a golden era, but perhaps we have found the floor or a floor where relations will not sink deeper,” said Drew Thompson, a former U.S. defense officer who controlled military-to-military relations with China, Taiwan, and Mongolia.
Thompson, a visiting fellow at the National University of Singapore, said the meeting in Zurich went “spectacularly well” compared to a March meeting in Alaska. Yang and Sullivan attended and other meetings between the United States and China in the last three years.
Zhao Kejin, a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, described the current direction as an attempt to ease tensions, saying a Xi-Biden meeting could limit those efforts.
“Compared to the tense conditions under the Trump administration, the current relationship is moving toward mitigation,” he said. “How far it will move, we will wait and see.”
A thorn in the relationship was removed two weeks ago when U.S. prosecutors reached an agreement with a Chinese telecommunications chief that put an end to lengthy extradition procedures in Canada and allowed her to return to China.
Shortly afterwards, two Canadians held by China for more than two years were released, and two Americans who had been blocked from leaving China were allowed to return to the United States.
And earlier this week, Chinese state media highlighted remarks from Biden’s top trade official, Katherine Tai, that she was planning honest talks with her Chinese colleagues to resolve a customs war. However, the US administration has not said whether it will meet Chinese demands to roll back the tariffs, which were levied under former President Donald Trump.
There is not much to suggest a easing of regional security, as China’s territorial and strategic ambitions in the Western Pacific have encountered setbacks by the US military and its allies.
China flew a record number of military aircraft south of Taiwan over a four-day period in the past week, calling the United States risky and destabilizing. The flights came as the United States and five other countries carried out joint naval maneuvers with three aircraft carriers northeast of Taiwan. China describes such exercises as a provocation.
Biden is also under pressure from human rights activists and Republicans to maintain a firm line with China, even as his administration seeks cooperation on climate change and on getting North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program.
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican and frequent critic, tweeted Wednesday that Biden is “dangerously delusional” if he thinks he can get a climate deal by downplaying “superpower competition” with China.
Beijing residents were cautious about future relations, but some said it was better for the two sides to talk to each other than not. They blamed a hostile American stance on the state of the relationship, repeating the stance of the Chinese government.
“I do not have a good impression of the United States,” He Taiqin said. “I feel the country is overbearing and aggressive.”