Easing US-China tensions requires more dialogue

Ten months after he was sworn into office, Joe Biden has finally held a meeting with Xi Jinping. The summit was online, not face to face. But after many months of rising tensions between Washington and Beijing, the very fact that the US and Chinese leaders spoke for three hours was important.

One apparent breakthrough to emerge from the summit was an agreement, announced by the Americans, for China and the US to hold talks on their nuclear arsenals. Just a few days earlier, at the UN climate summit in Glasgow, the two nations had announced a plan to work together on climate change.

This outbreak of dialogue and diplomacy is a hopeful sign that relations between China and the US can be stabilised, and may even be improving. Fashionable talk of a new cold war between the two nations may now give way to talk of a new detente.

Caution is in order. The precise format and timing of the nuclear talks has yet to be confirmed. There is certainly no indication that Beijing intends to reduce its dramatic investments in nuclear weaponry; or that the US plans to scale back the modernisation of its own, much larger, nuclear arsenal.

The joint US-China statement on climate was also light on detail and commitments — particularly when compared with the Xi-Obama statement of 2014, which paved the way for the Paris climate agreement the following year.

The summaries issued by both sides of the Xi-Biden talks underline, too, the continuing potential for conflict over Taiwan. Xi’s language was confrontational. He warned that politicians who encourage the island to aspire towards independence were “playing with fire” and would “burn themselves”.

Although this is standard official rhetoric in China, it is still jarring to hear a Chinese leader allude so openly to the possibility of war with the US. Biden also acknowledged such an eventuality, stating that the two leaders have a responsibility to ensure that rivalry does not “veer into conflict”.

The starkness of these warnings reflects the real dangers of the situation. Both Washington and Beijing accuse the other side of escalating tensions. China has been sending warplanes into Taiwan’s air-defence identification zone with increasing frequency. Biden’s recent remark that the US would defend Taiwan from any Chinese attack was a break with the traditional US policy of “strategic ambiguity”, even if it was swiftly clarified. The US has also angered by Beijing, by attempting to enlarge the diplomatic space for Taiwan.

The Biden-Xi talks seem to have done little to wind down tensions over the island. The summaries issued by both sides represented little more than a confirmation of their current positions and mutual suspicions.

There was little sign, either, of progress on trade. The tariffs and other punitive measures the Trump administration slapped on China have not been lifted, and the talks gave no indication of that changing anytime soon.

But if US-China talks on nuclear and climate issues gather momentum, the more positive tone in bilateral relations might also filter through to economic issues. A change in tone would certainly be welcome. Some recent meetings between high-level officials of the two countries have descended into open acrimony.

The rivalry between the US and China remains wide-ranging and dangerous. The Biden-Xi talks have not altered that underlying reality. But the two leaders have begun a dialogue that they can now build on. This week’s summit meeting should become the first of many.

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