Prospects for virtual China-U.S. meeting
Updated 09:55, 16-Nov-2021
Josef Gregory Mahoney


Editor's note: Josef Gregory Mahoney is a professor of politics at East China Normal University in Shanghai. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

Given the recent China-U.S. deal on climate change at COP26 and now both presidents preparing for a virtual summit, many are wondering if bilateral relations might take a turn for the better after so much negativity.

On the one hand, these kinds of meetings usually happen only if both sides are certain they can benefit from them. We know that diplomats have been preparing for this summit for several weeks, and we can assume China has agreed to participate because it's assured that it will be a respectful exchange that will produce some tangible results. If this was not the case, then it would be difficult to imagine President Xi Jinping agreeing to participate.

On the other hand, while both sides have compelling reasons to engage and resolve various conflicts, the most important carry relatively hard political limits with profound strategic implications. Consequently, while we should be optimistic and encourage positive engagement and can expect something positive to come from this meeting, we should keep expectations low.

While the leaders are likely to discuss many topics and no doubt congratulate themselves for the recent climate deal, it's safe to assume that they will focus on the three Ts: trade, technology and Taiwan.


We can expect some progress on trade. This stage was set earlier by the U.S. trade representative and the now almost universal understanding among serious-minded people that Donald Trump's trade war has been a disaster for the United States. The idea that the U.S. should stop selling technology to China and place tariffs on Chinese goods was based on the fantasy that U.S. manufacturing would suddenly reappear and pick up the slack. As COVID-19 hit and existing U.S. production fell into disarray, the U.S. became even more dependent on Chinese manufacturing, while U.S. consumers paid for the tariffs with increased prices. This contributed to rising inflation and commodity shortages, the biggest dangers now facing Joe Biden's presidency and political future, especially ahead of next year's midterm elections and the increasing chance that Democrats will lose control of Congress. 

In fact, Biden is running out of policy options to address inflation. Nearly everything he has done so far has neglected the problem or made it worse – stimulus checks and massive government spending have continued from Trump till now as has the trade war. And the Federal Reserve, which can raise interest rates and cut the money supply to curtail in inflation, realizes that doing so risks undermining the relatively modest economic recovery the U.S. is experiencing and creates tremendous global risks that will impact the U.S. as well. Consequently, one of the few things Biden can do is to resolve the trade war, but he'll have to do it slowly, making it appear like the U.S. is not conceding too much, while also still extracting as much as it can from China –otherwise Biden will face serious political risks in the U.S. given the substantial anti-China sentiment rampant in both political parties.

But with China still winning relative to the U.S. in terms of economic recovery and growth in the pandemic era, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement coming into force in less than two months, the dual circulation model coming into focus and China moving quickly to address tech bottlenecks caused by U.S. disruptions, the Chinese government might simply refuse to make any concessions on trade and leave the U.S. to swallow its own bitter stew.

U.S. stocks ended lower on Thursday, with the Dow plunging over 700 points, after then U.S. President Donald Trump announced to impose tariff on imported products from China, March 22, 2018. /Xinhua

U.S. stocks ended lower on Thursday, with the Dow plunging over 700 points, after then U.S. President Donald Trump announced to impose tariff on imported products from China, March 22, 2018. /Xinhua


We can expect little to no progress on technology except where it might impact supply chains, logistics and commodity shortages. Restricting technology to China increased the trade imbalance and also disrupted production of goods in China that were bound for the U.S. market. It created profound ripple effects on goods like global chip making, which in turn undercut manufacturing in the U.S., bringing some U.S. factory lines to a standstill. And it certainly did nothing to encourage green investment or the transition to renewable energy, as it stymied innovation and made costs higher.

China wants the U.S. to reverse course on its attacks on Chinese companies like Huawei and even provide Chinese tech firms with more access to the global market, including Chinese telecoms, as we saw last week with China once again appealing against U.S. policies restricting them. This appears quixotic, however.

Ultimately, we might see a few concessions from the American side when it comes to technology but nothing major, as this issue is too politicized presently and technology decoupling is still central to many of Biden's other economic redevelopment initiatives, however stillborn these seem to be. But we might expect some targeted relaxation aiming to address those areas most vulnerable to supply chain disruptions and in some way connected to inflationary pricing – insomuch as technology restrictions are also deeply entwined with the trade issues noted above.


We shouldn't expect any significant progress on the Taiwan issue. We'll hear the usual from Washington, like respecting the three joint communiques, reaffirming commitment to the one-China policy, but that's probably all we'll get. The Chinese leadership has made it clear the Taiwan issue threatens making progress on other fronts, but it's a key element in America's anti-China containment strategy and won't be abandoned easily.

That said, while China would definitely benefit from resolving the trade war and relaxing technology restrictions, the pressure to do so is greater on the American side. So while we know that the U.S. instigated these problems, and we know that China has long wanted to resolve them, we might expect China to push the Taiwan issue before giving too much ground on trade.

That's ironic perhaps, but U.S. foreign policy making is so erratic, self-defeating and counter-intuitive at times that irony is ever-present. And with this in mind, consider again what everyone knows: this erratic if not irrational behavior bodes ill for American allies as well. The AUKUS deal spoiled relations with France. The China-U.S. deal on climate has angered Australia. The U.S. abandoned its Afghan and Kurdish allies. The pressures that it's placed on South Korea to join anti-China efforts have undercut Seoul-Washington relations. This is just a sampling of what's happened already and there's more to come – for example, a contentious U.S.-UK post-Brexit trade negotiation that will bruise London's enthusiasm for the U.S. With the U.S. frequently abandoning its allies for narrow, short-term interests, time is on China's side.

How might the summit impact bilateral relations in the near term?

The U.S. approach to China is still focused on the so-called pivot and efforts to reconstruct an effective containment strategy. Even though sober analyses indicate these efforts have little hope of success, the zero-sum thinking of Washington hegemony is unable to fathom alternatives.

Furthermore, the U.S. is trying to keep China off-balance, particularly ahead of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China next year. The U.S. is off-balance currently, and it wants to externalize this insecurity to others, especially China, because it fears China is gaining strength as America declines. Indeed, the U.S. wants to undercut President Xi partially because Washington prefers a weak and fractious leadership in Beijing. In fact, this is probably the biggest risk that China faces in the coming summit, but we should assume that the latter has control over this in meaningful ways.

So we'll continue to see the two-handed or three-handed approach, reaching out on some issues, undermining on others, and always in the background, the possibility that an even more hawkish administration might replace Biden in the future, given his weak performance and approval ratings, or that Biden himself might continue to escalate tensions if his domestic policies continue to flounder. We shouldn't be surprised if the Biden administration is communicating this danger to the Chinese government: help us now or face greater dangers in the future if we continue to decline and become more desperate as we do. Again, irony, but history shows that this kind of "extortion" is not uncommon from collapsing empires.

While optimism is reasonable because both sides are cooperating on climate change again, and further, because this upcoming meeting will take place and we'll probably see some progress on the trade war, we have to place these developments in the immediate context of AUKUS, the QUAD, U.S. troops in Taiwan region, the still lingering COVID-19 blame game, the slander of genocide, and so on. 

Bottom line: A new cold war, already proclaimed by many as a reality, remains a threat, not because the U.S. doesn't have profound incentives to reverse course, but because even it reverses course, it still won't reach its goal of preserving American domination.

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