Editorial: US & China

No breakthroughs were delivered during talks between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden, but the cordial tone of the virtual meeting is an indication that relations between the sides may be turning a corner — even if that means for now merely walking back from the heated exchanges of earlier this year.

Relations went into sharp decline after then-President Donald Trump imposed sweeping tariffs on Chinese goods in retaliation for what he said were Beijing’s unfair trading practices.

The US had for years been complaining of the theft or forced transfer of American technology and was campaigning to keep Chinese communications giants, most notably Huawei, out of the U.S. and other markets. The Trump administration also sharply criticized China on human rights issues.

Relations remained frosty after Biden took office. At a meeting in Alaska in March, senior Chinese foreign policy adviser Yang Jiechi berated Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, accusing the US of failing to deal with its own human rights problems and taking issue with what he said was American hypocrisy.

A trip to China by America’s No. 2 diplomat Wendy Sherman in July was equally sour in tone, and a subsequent visit by US climate envoy John Kerry went little better. Relations appeared to bottom out when Sullivan and Yang met again in Switzerland last month, in a follow-up to a phone call between Xi and Biden. Sullivan made clear that the United States sought better engagement at a senior level ‘to ensure responsible competition,’ according to the White House.

The meeting laid the groundwork for the virtual meeting Tuesday between Xi and Biden, who have known each other since both were vice presidents. Xi referred to Biden as his ‘old friend’ and they lamented they were not meeting face-to-face before launching into 3 1/2 hours of discussions. The US described the talks as respectful, straightforward and open. The sides are at odds over everything from trade and technology to human rights, self-governing Taiwan and the South China Sea.

In some of his most pointed comments, Xi said ‘Taiwanese independence forces’ and those in the US who would use them to contain China were the key sources of tension over the island that China claims as its own territory. ‘We have patience and are willing to show utmost sincerity and exert the greatest efforts to obtain peaceful unification,’ Xi said, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency. ‘However, if the Taiwan independence separatist forces provoke and force our hand, we will be required to take drastic measures.’

The softened rhetoric marks a major improvement. What benefits accrue depends on whether the two countries (US and China) can find areas of cooperation and come up with agreements, work-arounds or other ways of managing their disputes.


NT Bureau