Analysts See Modest Steps in US–China Relations, but Major Challenges Ahead After Biden–Xi Meeting

Ryan Morgan
By Ryan Morgan
November 21, 2023International

President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping agreed to some efforts to warm U.S.–China relations, but foreign policy analysts say the inroads they made were modest and there remains a wide diplomatic gulf between the two nations after last week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.

According to a White House readout of their Nov. 15 meeting, President Biden and Mr. Xi agreed to resume high-level military-to-military communication between their respective countries and new bilateral efforts to combat international drug manufacturing and trafficking.

Global Taiwan Institute (GTI) Deputy Director John Dotson said any meeting between the leaders of the United States and China “is a sign of progress in and of itself,” but told NTD’s “Capitol Report” that the tangible results from their meeting will likely remain “pretty modest.”

“There has been sort of some hyping of limited signs of progress, such as the restoration of military-military communication ties, and supposedly efforts by the Chinese to crack down on fentanyl production. But I think these are actually pretty modest steps overall,” Mr. Dotson said.

He said he doesn’t “put a lot of faith” in the Chinese side to actually deliver on commitments Mr. Xi agreed to during the Nov. 15 meeting.

Miles Yu, a senior fellow and director of the China Center at the Hudson Institute, also described the outcomes from the Nov. 15 meeting between President Biden and Mr. Xi as “very limited” and called for a wait-and-see approach on the action items they discussed in the closed-door interaction.

Mr. Yu told “Capitol Report” that agreements between the United States and China to improve military-to-military communications, expand bilateral counter-narcotics operations, and commit to the non-weaponization of artificial intelligence all sound “very good,” but he said he has “some suspicion about the enforceability of those agreements.”

Taiwan Still Divides US and China

One particular issue that still divides the United States and China is their respective policies toward Taiwan.

Taiwan, officially called the Republic of China, has governed itself as an independent nation for decades, but the People’s Republic of China (PRC) contends that the island is a part of mainland Chinese territory. The United States has maintained a more ambiguous position on either side’s claims of control over China, maintaining formal diplomatic relations with the Chinese regime, while continuing informal relations with Taiwan and supplying weapons to the island that could be used to counter Chinese efforts to assert control over the island through military force.

Mr. Dotson’s organization, GTI, has a stated mission “to enhance the relationship between Taiwan and other countries, especially the United States.”

Mr. Dotson assessed both the United States and China “remained pretty staunch in their positions on Taiwan” following President Biden’s meeting with Mr. Xi.

According to the White House readout, President Biden stated during the Nov. 15 with Mr. Xi that the U.S. side expects a peaceful resolution to the cross-strait dispute over Taiwan’s sovereignty and called for China to exercise restraint in its military activities around the island.

Since 2019, China’s People’s Liberation Army has conducted near-daily flights and other military drills around Taiwan, which Mr. Dotson assessed are “part of a larger pattern of coercive military activity directed against Taiwan.”

In its own characterization of the Nov. 15 meeting, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Mr. Xi reiterated the Chinese position that the United States must commit to not supporting Taiwanese independence and stop arming Taiwan.

Economic Ties Complicate US–China Policy

The business and trade ties between the United States and China add another layer of complexity to relations between the two nations.

Mr. Dotson contends China uses its economic ties with other nations as a tool to coerce those nations to stay in China’s good graces or to punish actions the Chinese side disfavors.

“When there’s some political action in Taiwan that the PRC doesn’t like and they want to send a symbolic message, that’s when they suddenly find bugs in shipments of fruit and have to declare a ban on them,” the GTI deputy director said. “So we’ve seen bans over the last few years on Taiwanese products such as pineapples, on monkfish, wax, apples, things like this. And those bans tend to come about at not-coincidental moments when the Chinese Communist Party, the CCP, wishes to send a message. So yes, the CCP does very much use economic coercion as an active tool of policy.”

Mr. Dotson argued China’s economic relations with the United States have featured similar coercive methods.

“There has been a long ongoing effort over the course of many years by the Chinese government to try to control the supply and trade in rare earth minerals … and of trying to use their very dominant position in the rare earths market as a tool of leverage over the United States, in other areas of policy—either opening the gates a little bit when they’re happy, and choosing to close those gates when they wish to send a message,” Mr. Dotson said.

Mr. Yu argued that the United States should be less focused on building up bilateral relationships with China, as opposed to strengthening ties with other nations in the Indo-Pacific region.

“China has a problem with virtually every democracy in the world. So the the artificial height of this supreme importance of the U.S.–China bilateral relationship is actually not helpful because what we can see here is China versus the rest of the world, it’s not just China versus the United States,” Mr. Yu said.

Some foreign policy analysts have urged caution in how the United States redefines its economic ties with China. Ted Galen Carpenter, a former senior fellow at the libertarian CATO Institute, wrote in a 2020 column that economic ties between the United States and China incentivize both nations to resolve disputes peacefully and that a full economic decoupling of the two nations would raise international tensions and increase the risk of a costly armed conflict.

In his own comments to “Capitol Report,” Mr. Dotson said “there’s no entirely easy answer” for how the United States should handle economic relations with China going forward.

“I think it would be extremely difficult to cut ourselves off completely from the Chinese economy,” he said. “But I do think there are sensible steps that can be taken to reduce U.S. economic dependence on China in a number of areas … but of also sort of reducing the dependence that we have on the PRC for manufacturing in a number of areas.”

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