Chance for Sino-US ties reboot

The two sides must build on the positive vibes created by the Xi-Biden Bali meeting


China-US relations are facing a new window of opportunity after President Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden agreed to take concrete actions to put China-US relations back on the track of steady development. 

During their first face-to-face meeting in Bali, Indonesia, in November as heads of state, the two leaders instructed their teams to “continue strategic communication” on the major issues that had been discussed and to implement the important common understandings reached between them. It means that the bilateral contacts that were suspended after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi provocatively visited Taiwan in August have resumed with key lines of communication starting to function again.

The Bali meeting carried considerable political weight as it happened after President Xi started his third term as Party chief at the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China and Biden’s Democratic Party retained the Senate in the US midterm elections. Both leaders are now more confident about overcoming resistances and moving China-US relations forward on the right course without losing direction or speed.

This was not the first time China sent such signal to Biden’s team. As early as March 2021, when China’s National People’s Congress held its annual meeting, Premier Li Keqiang told the media that China and the United States have common interests and many areas for cooperation, and should strive for a healthy development in relations. Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi also emphasized the importance of managing differences through candid communication to “prevent strategic miscalculation and avoid conflict and confrontation”.

What prevents the bilateral relations from being satisfactory includes the “grey rhino” risks lying in the Taiwan question and other risks concerning China’s core interests. It was encouraging though to see some consensuses reached by the two leaders on the Taiwan question. 

President Xi said that “the Taiwan question is at the very core of China’s core interests, the bedrock of the political foundation of China-US relations, and the first redline that must not be crossed in China-US relations.” President Biden said that the US does not support “Taiwan independence,” does not support “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan”, and has no intention to have a conflict with China, indicating that the US has no intention to use the Taiwan question as a tool to seek advantages in competition with China or to contain China.

Despite the positive signs, it remains challenging for the two countries to manage their differences and handle sensitive issues properly and to prevent bilateral relations from getting derailed. Both sides agreed to build “guardrails” in their strategic relations by respecting each other’s redlines, but their interpretations over those “guardrails” and “redlines” could be very different. Therefore, the maintenance of regular dialogue and contacts is crucial to reduce the risk of conflict in any form.

Luckily, the bilateral relationship is underpinned by their economic complementarity and shared responsibility to provide global public goods. Despite the years-long trade war, the US will probably have imported more goods from China in 2022 than in any year prior. In the first nine months of 2022, the US imported $418 billion in goods from China, $23.7 billion more than it did in the same period of 2018, the current record. This proves that the two economies are deeply integrated, and both can benefit from each other’s development.

As the two largest economies in the world, the US and China have unavoidable responsibilities in addressing global challenges such as climate change, pandemics, poverty and terrorism. In the past two years, the two countries have committed to cooperating with each other to tackle the climate crisis despite their strained relationship.

After US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry visited Shanghai and met China Special Envoy for Climate Change Xie Zhenhua, President Xi attended and addressed a virtual climate change summit hosted by the US on April 22, 2021. 

Since then, the two countries have discussed concrete actions to reduce carbon emissions aimed at keeping the Paris Agreement-aligned temperature limit within reach, and pursue their respective long-term strategies aimed at carbon neutrality. The climate dialogue, which had been disrupted by the previous US administration, has become an important channel through which the two countries can enhance mutual trust.

“With great power comes great responsibility.” It is an adage for the two countries in terms of handling their differences. With the world facing unprecedented challenges, such as climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and economic volatility, the two countries should not view their relationship as a zero-sum game where one side thrives at the expense of the other.

Instead, their interactions should be defined by dialogue, cooperation and mutual respect. The Sino-US relationship is not just about the interests of the two peoples, but also about the peace and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region and the world at large. Therefore, the two administrations need to grasp the window of opportunity provided by the Xi-Biden summit and expand cooperation in various areas.

The author is a senior research fellow and an assistant director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.