Sino-US Cooperative Rivalry After Biden-Xi Summit


The summit meeting between US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart President Xi Jinping resulted in two concrete pledges. China agreed to reopen communication channels between the US and Chinese militaries, suspended in 2022 after the then US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan. Both the superpowers also decided to create a counter-narcotics working group to stem the network of Chinese groups and Mexican cartels smuggling ingredients for fentanyl which was responsible for 70,000 overdose deaths in 2022.

The two leaders had a rather unsuccessful meeting last year in Bali on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, due to the Chinese surveillance balloon incident in  US airspace in a tit-for-tat response to Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.   Striking a conciliatory tone after talks lasting four hours, Biden said, “President Xi . . . and I agreed that either one of us could pick up the phone, call directly, and we’d be heard immediately.” The Chinese president was no less mollifying, he said, “Planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed, and one country’s success is an opportunity for the other.” China’s English-language newspaper The People’s Daily also termed the delayed interaction a success, while particularly noting Biden’s admiring gaze at Xi’s customized Hongqi sedan.  Xinhua, China’s official state news agency, reported that Xi pointed out that Biden’s recent executive order to restrict  investment and  impose sanctions “seriously damaged Beijing’s legitimate interests.” It also reported an agreement to set up a dialogue format on artificial intelligence and to increase commercial air traffic.

The apparent thawing of ties on the part of the United States is likely resulting from the costly and protracted Russia- Ukraine war and soaring inflation while for China, due to the collapse of the real estate sector, a decline in foreign investment and technology-related sanctions. The shared fear of a Republican White House further reinforces the mutual reality check.

Tech Wars

Although promising to see rapport between the two sides amid prevailing fundamental tensions, Sino-US relations are still faced with gargantuan challenges relating to arms control, strategic stability, the CHIPS and Science Act and Taiwan. Neither Washington nor Beijing is ready to declare the other as a rival.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought a rude awakening to the United States and Europe regarding their complete dependence on microchip manufacturing in high-risk Taiwan. While Dutch giant ASML holds a monopoly on developing and manufacturing chip-making machines, Taiwan’s TSMC is the sole producer of 10-nanometer (nm) to 4-nm chips, which China or any other cannot fabricate on its own. The US decision to sanction the provision of advanced microchips and their technology to China coupled with $82 billion public sector investment not only contradicted the norm of a free-market economy and globalization but also indicated hostility toward Beijing.

“Suppressing Chinese technology equates to containing China’s high-quality development and depriving the Chinese people of their right to development,” Xi said in San Francisco. Xi vowed that his country had “no plans to surpass or replace the United States, and the United States should not intend to suppress or contain China.”

Concurrently, the White House continues to build on President Trump’s policy of containing the Asian superpower. Conversely, the United States seeks to avoid a three-way nuclear arms race while being pulled by Russia into the Russia-Ukraine war. Beijing had hoped that the Biden administration would walk back from the tough nuclear posture adopted in 2018 by the Trump administration.  Instead, the White House embraced it. China is now taking measures to match the lowered threshold for US nuclear weapons use while enhancing its arsenal further by upgrading its missiles, building more silos and bases. What is promising is that Beijing continues to be the only nuclear power to adhere to its longstanding policy of “unconditional no-first-use.” Its nuclear forces are estimated to include 410 operational warheads along with 210 strategic delivery launchers, both land and submarine-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, much smaller than the  US strategic nuclear arsenal. If the United States does not reverse its posturing to its pre-2018 level, a three-way nuclear arms race will be inevitable.

The ongoing engagement between US Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance Mallory Stewart and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Director-General of Arms Control Sun Xiaobo is likely to intensify toward the shared goal of arms control and strategic stability.

The Biden-Xi meeting discussed the use and future reliance on artificial intelligence from a strategic dimension too. This new domain of competition is the most disruptive as well as unpredictable. Russian President Vladmir Putin sees his country left out of such talks and vows to use artificial intelligence as deemed necessary.

Murky Waters of the South China Sea

Though Biden reiterated the One China policy after his meeting, the US focus on the South China Sea and Taiwan highlighted the limits to cooperation between the two superpowers. Washington is already in overdrive in managing the Israel-Hamas war while being accused of supporting Tel Aviv’s excessive use of force. All the while, the absence of the desired outcomes on the Russia-Ukraine front looms large. Is it pragmatic for the Biden administration to ramp up military pressure on China while already slapping technological sanctions? It is likely that Washington will lower the heat on the disputed island in order for Beijing to decrease or end  incursions into  Taiwanese airspace. Meanwhile, minor tussles between coastguards of rival nations continue in the South China and Japan seas.

For the Biden administration,Trump’s soaring poll numbers are beyond worrisome. By slightly easing tensions with Beijing, the president can focus on his re-election bid. The sizeable Chinese-American donors and voters alike are crucial for the Democratic Party as are Muslim-Americans. Due to his policy in Gaza, he might have lost the latter but can keep the former in hand.

Professor Joseph Nye has some invaluable advice for  US policymakers. “While partial decoupling (or “de-risking”) on security issues is useful, total economic decoupling would be extremely costly and few allies would follow suit. More countries count China than the US as their leading trade partner.” The China hawks, dominating the narrative in  Washington, are basing their alarmist conjectures on hypothetical scenarios. Beijing remains starkly pragmatic about the “cooperative rivalry” with Washington. It knows how detrimental a Republican victory in 2024 could be for its economic and strategic interests. It is also aware of the limits to US muscle-flexing amid ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East. Until it reaches technological parity if not superiority with the United States, China will abide by the doctrine of “managed competition.” 

Editorial Team