On Nov. 15, President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. convened a Summit with President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Woodside, California. The leaders engaged in an open and productive dialogue covering various bilateral and global matters, exploring potential areas for collaboration while also discussing differences. It’s noteworthy that the foundation for this summit was established during the visit of the Chinese foreign minister to the USA, where the two foreign ministers laid the groundwork for the meeting between the two heads of state.
The Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, visited the United States from October 26 to 28, marking his first trip to the U.S. capital in over five years. During his stay in Washington, Wang engaged in meetings with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, the latter being Wang’s counterpart in his role as the head of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Foreign Affairs Office. Additionally, Wang met with U.S. President Joe Biden, reciprocating Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision to personally meet with Blinken during the latter’s visit to Beijing in June. The visit wasn’t anticipated to yield significant outcomes or breakthroughs; rather, it is seen as an opportunity to lay the groundwork for a future visit to the United States by Chinese President Xi Jinping. In mid-November, the APEC summit took place in San Francisco, an event typically attended by Xi Jinping, except during pandemic years. Both nations are eager to ensure that disagreements between Washington and Beijing remain manageable and do not escalate into conflict. The focus is on fostering collaboration on mutual concerns. Notably, following Blinken’s visit, other U.S. politicians have traveled to China, with California Governor Gavin Newsom recently visited the country for discussions on climate change.
Wang adopted a conciliatory stance in his comments to the press ahead of his initial meeting with Blinken. He acknowledged existing disagreements and differences, emphasizing the presence of crucial shared interests and collective challenges that necessitate a joint response. Wang expressed the view that China and the United States should engage in dialogue, emphasizing not only the need for a resumption of dialogue but also its depth and comprehensiveness. The objective, as he outlined, is to stabilize China-U.S. relations and guide them back to a trajectory characterized by health, stability, and sustainable development.
The U.S. State Department provided a brief summary of Wang’s discussion with Blinken, indicating that the two diplomats talked about various bilateral, regional, and global matters. The statement mentioned the intention to address points of divergence while also exploring potential areas for cooperation. However, it did not specify the exact topics covered. China’s Foreign Ministry offered an even more concise overview, highlighting a “constructive atmosphere” during the meeting. The ministry noted that Wang and Blinken exchanged “in-depth views” on China-U.S. relations and common concerns, without delving into specific details.
During President Biden’s meeting with Wang, a White House press release highlighted that Biden underscored the importance of responsibly managing competition between the United States and China, emphasizing the need to maintain open lines of communication. The release also mentioned Biden’s perspective that both nations must collaborate in addressing global challenges. However, specific details about the issues discussed were not provided.
It’s noteworthy that Blinken’s visit to China in the summer, his first since taking office in January 2021, initiated a series of exchanges between China and the U.S. In quick succession, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen (in early July 2023), U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry (in late July 2023), and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo (in August 2023) all undertook visits to China.
The diplomatic engagements appeared notably unidirectional. Apart from the attendance of Chinese Commerce Secretary Wang Wentao at an APEC event in May, there were no visits from other Chinese ministers to the United States until Wang Yi’s recent visit this week. Chinese and U.S. officials did, however, convene for several meetings in third-party nations, including Italy and Switzerland. Notably, Indonesia hosted a significant meeting, where President Biden and President Xi had their first and, to date, only in-person encounter on the sidelines of the 2022 G-20 Summit.
The official visit by the Chinese foreign minister to the United States marks a noteworthy step in the direction of restoring some semblance of normalcy to China-U.S. relations. In the past, such diplomatic exchanges were nearly annual occurrences; however, Wang’s trip to Washington is the first by a Chinese foreign minister since 2018. In the intervening period, China-U.S. relations have weathered a trade war, a global pandemic, and heightened tensions over issues like Taiwan and the South China Sea. Escalating tensions led to the abandonment of regular dialogue platforms, and bilateral visits became sporadic. Even at present, such trips remain a source of controversy.
As the U.S. presidential election looms just over a year away, the influence of domestic political considerations is likely to play an increasingly significant role in decisions regarding China-U.S. exchanges. In practical terms, this suggests that the return of a Chinese foreign minister to Washington may not be anticipated in the near future. The evolving political landscape and electoral dynamics may contribute to the shaping of diplomatic engagements between the two nations.
Wang’s visit to Washington stirred disagreement within the United States, as House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul, a Republican, voiced concerns about the reliability of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as a partner. McCaul cautioned against the Biden administration placing undue trust in perceived promises, urging instead a focus on tangible outcomes. In a joint statement with Rep. Young Kim, the chair of the subcommittee on the Indo-Pacific, McCaul emphasized the need for deliverables, including the release of Americans held in China, a cessation of the export of fentanyl precursors, and a halt to military expansionism in the Indo-Pacific region.
In the course of interactions between Blinken and the Chinese leadership in June 2023, Taiwan emerged as a prominent issue alongside other challenges such as retaliatory trade measures and technological restrictions imposed by the United States. Qin Gang, China’s Foreign Minister and former envoy to Washington, characterized Sino-U.S. relations during this period as being at their lowest point since the establishment of diplomatic ties. Wang Yi, who heads the Communist Party of China’s Central Foreign Affairs Commission and serves as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s foreign policy advisor, attributed this downturn to the United States. He pointed to perceived misconceptions about China in the U.S. and the propagation of what he termed the “bogey of a Chinese threat.” Wang urged Blinken to refrain from assessing China through a “Western prism,” cautioning against viewing nations that have gained strength as seeking hegemony. Wang metaphorically outlined China’s boundaries, calling on the Biden administration to cease its efforts in technological containment and refrain from interfering in China’s internal affairs. Regarding Taiwan, Wang stressed the importance of national unity as a fundamental interest and a mission of the Communist Party of China (CPC). He urged the U.S. government to adhere to the “One-China” principle. In essence, this visit from the Chinese side is an assessment ahead of forthcoming global events.
The economic interdependence between the United States and China serves as a crucial foundation amid the complexities of their strained relationship. Despite the numerous areas of disagreement, both nations acknowledge the vital nature of their economic ties and the potential repercussions of a complete breakdown. Discussions between US and Chinese officials likely encompassed economic issues, including trade imbalances and market access. Balancing these economic frictions alongside addressing broader geopolitical concerns demands a careful equilibrium. The outcome of these talks holds implications for global trade, investment flows, and economic stability. Establishing common ground in economic matters could foster a more stable and cooperative relationship, but achieving this goal will necessitate compromises and sustained engagement from both parties.
[Photo by U.S. Department of State, via Flickr]
*Syed Raiyan Amir is a Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs. He was a Research Assistant at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and International Republican Institute (IRI). The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.