Nine months after the start of Joe Biden’s presidency, the two sides finally appear to be trying to ease tensions dating back to the Trump administration – although complaints from the United States about China’s policies on trade, Taiwan and d other questions are little attenuated.
A closed-door meeting in Zurich on Wednesday between China’s top foreign policy adviser Yang Jiechi and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan was not accompanied by the public acrimony displayed in previous meetings.
After the six-hour talks, the United States revealed an agreement in principle for a virtual summit between Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping by the end of the year. The two have spoken by phone twice since Biden became president in January, but have not held a formal meeting.
Major differences in many ways divide the two most powerful nations in the world as they scramble for what each sees as its rightful place in the world order. Some differences over regional security, trade and technology may be irreconcilable, but successful talks could manage them and prevent any spillover that would hamper cooperation in other areas such as climate change.
“I don’t think that marks the turnaround and that we’ll somehow have a golden age, but maybe we’ve found the ground, or a ground, in which relationships don’t exist. ‘will not sink any deeper,’ said Drew Thompson, a former US defense official who has handled military relations with China, Taiwan and Mongolia.
Thompson, a visiting scholar at the National University of Singapore, said the Zurich meeting did “spectacularly well” compared to a March meeting in Alaska that Yang and Sullivan attended and other US meetings. Chinese over the past three years.
Zhao Kejin, professor of international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, described the current leadership as an attempt to ease tensions and said a Xi-Biden meeting could crown those efforts.
“Compared to the strained relationship under the Trump administration, the current relationship is geared towards mitigation,” he said. “As to how far it goes, we’ll wait and see.”
A thorn in the relationship was pulled two weeks ago when US prosecutors struck a deal with a Chinese telecommunications executive that ended a protracted extradition process in Canada and allowed him to return to China.
Shortly after, two Canadians held by China for more than two years were released and two Americans who had been prevented from leaving China were allowed to return to the United States.
And earlier this week, Chinese state media highlighted remarks by Biden’s top trade official, Katherine Tai, that she was planning frank conversations with her Chinese counterparts about resolving a tariff war. The US administration, however, has not said whether it will accede to Chinese demands to cut tariffs, which were seen under former President Donald Trump.
There are few signs of an easing of regional security, where China’s territorial and strategic ambitions in the Western Pacific collide with the retreat of the US military and its allies.
China flew a record number of military jets over southern Taiwan over a four-day span last week, which the United States has called risky and unsettling. The flights took place as the United States and five other countries conducted joint naval maneuvers with three aircraft carriers northeast of Taiwan. China calls such exercises provocation.
Biden is also coming under pressure from human rights activists and Republicans to maintain a firm line on China even as his administration seeks to cooperate on climate change and get North Korea to end its agenda of ‘nuclear weapons.
US Senator Marco Rubio, Florida Republican and frequent critic, tweeted Wednesday that Biden was “dangerously delusional” if he thought he could get a climate deal by downplaying “big power competition” with China.
Peking residents were cautious about the future of the relationship, but some said it was better for the two sides to talk to each other rather than not. They blamed a hostile US stance for the state of relations, echoing the Chinese government’s stance.
“I don’t have a good impression of America,” said He Taiqin. “I think the country is authoritarian and aggressive.”
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