The U.S.-China Superpower Summit: How to Reinvent the Cold War, and What Are We Do About Its Goals?
SHANGHAI — The rare face-to-face meeting between the leaders of the world’s two largest economies will take place during what some are calling “the first superpower summit of the second Cold War”.
The last time a U.S. president shook hands with the leader of China was more than three years ago. Donald Trump was in the White House, the COVID-19 pandemic was months away and relations between Beijing and Washington, while experiencing friction over trade, were on much firmer ground.
Trust is low, the rhetoric is becoming less friendly, and disputes continue to grow in areas such as trade, technology, security and ideology.
There’s not going to be a joint statement here. This is really not a meeting that’s being driven by deliverables,” a senior U.S. administration official told reporters this week. The president wants to build a floor for the relationship so he can make sure the rules of the road are in line with our competition.
Since the taking of Biden’s office, the two leaders have been talking by phone a few times but have been unable to reverse the downward slide in ties between the two largest economies.
“I don’t think one meeting is going to rescue or really even redefine the relationship,” says Evan Medeiros, a professor at Georgetown University and former White House China advisor. “If it goes well, they can bend the trajectory a little bit if they’re lucky.”
Biden said on Wednesday his goal for the meeting is to get a deeper understanding of Xi’s priorities and concerns, and “lay out what each of our red lines are.”
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Taiwan is a big issue for China. Beijing considers the self-governed island a part of China, and has vowed to unite it politically with the mainland — but it sees the U.S. as standing in the way.
People who play with fire will die. When the two leaders met in the summer, Biden was warned by China’s president that the US could be “clear-eyed” about the situation.
And in October, the Communist Party chief again reiterated that China’s preference would be for “peaceful reunification” but repeated that the use of force remains an option.
Nancy Pelosi traveled to Taiwan in August. Beijing held large-scale military exercises around the island.
Biden is likely to try to assure the people of China that Washington’s policy about Taiwan has not changed and that the United States doesn’t support Taiwan independence. Analysts believe that with the Republican Party expected to take control of the House of Representatives, the president will likely remain skeptical.
“I think the Biden administration will be less flexible or maneuverable” on China, says Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Nanjing University.
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Kevin McCarthy has stated that if he becomes majority leader he would like to visit Taiwan. A Chinese expert on international relations warns against such a move.
The Chinese lost their face when Pelosi went. Next time, maybe they will just take action,” says a Chinese expert on international affairs, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized by his university to speak to the media.
The committee is one of the few areas where both the Congress and the White House can find common ground. The Biden administration has reinforced the already tough stance toward China that ex-President Donald Trump adopted later in his presidency. A new law signed by the president last year will allow the government to spend up to $200 billion in order to claim the leadership of the chip industry in a race that could decide the economy of the US and China in decades to come.
“During the Cold War, the United States imposed a series of really tough export controls on the Soviet Union,” says Chris Miller, author of The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology. “There’s really a lot of similarities, to be honest.”
The latest export controls were intended to keep certain technology out of the hands of China’s military and security agencies, but experts say they will have a broader impact.
It is not easy to enforce the restrictions in China. It is easy to smuggle small chips across borders. Also, total enforcement would require other countries that are part of the complex semiconductors supply chain to be on board, and that’s a work in progress.
The move has been opposed by Beijing and they decry what they call Washington’s “Cold War zero-sum mentality”. China has not taken any action in response. Analysts say that may be because the controls were announced at an awkward time for Chinese policy makers, days before a leadership reshuffle at the twice-a-decade Communist Party Congress.
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If Biden and Xi can muster the political will, experts think the Bali meeting could realistically yield a commitment to opening more channels of communication.
The lack of communication is a serious and dangerous problem, says Scott Kennedy, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Kennedy claimed he is the only one from Washington who has gone to China since the beginning of the Pandemic.
Now that the U.S. mid-term elections are behind us, he believes there is a window of opportunity to take a gamble.
But Zhu warns that nobody should expect too much from this summit. A discussion may help deepen understanding, but it’s not a good idea.
Medeiros is a former official in the U.S. who remembers when distrust grew between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
“After the Cuban Missile Crisis, both sides, because of that incredibly searing experience, internalized the belief that strategic restraint, often institutionalized through things like arms control agreements, was in their mutual interests,” he says.
The US and China have a tense relationship, which is being further complicated by the controversy over the exact origin of Covid-19 and the warnings the US gave to China not to support Russia in its war in Ukraine.
This trio of confrontations – along with rising tensions between US and Chinese forces in Asia and escalating standoffs over Taiwan – are dramatizing a long-building and once theoretical superpower rivalry that is suddenly a daily reality.
The challenge for the new select committee, which is especially probing economic and technological competition with China, will be to break this cycle of politicization to provide a useful examination of US-China relations that could result in effective policy recommendations down the road.
The committee’s work will be based on the premise that after years of trying to integrate China peacefully into the global system as a competitor not an enemy, the US is switching to a tougher stance in a belief that a new generation of Chinese leaders is trying to dismantle the US global order and international law.
According to the chairman of the committee “a Chinese spy balloon drifting over the country and circling our nuclear ICBM facilities has a way of bringing the threat close to home.”
“We want to understand what we got wrong about the Chinese Communist Party and what we need to understand about it going forward in order to get our policy right,” the Wisconsin Republican said.
On CBS News on Sunday, Gallagher warned: “We may call this a strategic competition, but it’s not a tennis match. This is about what type of world we want to live in. Do we want to live in Xinjiang-lite or do we want to live in the free world?” he said, referring to the Chinese region where the US has accused China of inflicting genocide on the Uyghur minority, a charge China continues to vehemently deny.
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There is no consensus among the US government about the origins of the swine flu. Intelligence agencies continue to disagree over the origin of the case, with no new evidence coming forward that supports the lab leak theory. Investigating the origins is hugely important.
“There is a bottom line here, which is that neither lab leak, nor spillover – i.e. animal origin – can be ruled out. We don’t have definitive information,” Tom Frieden, the former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told CNN on Monday.
The Republicans quickly claimed victory after the Wall Street Journal reported that new intel made the Department of Energy suspect a lab leak was to blame. Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green, accused of spreading conspiracy Theories about the Pandemic, Posts “Conspiracy theorists – 100 media – 0”.
Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas tweeted: “Re. China’s lab leak, being proven right doesn’t matter. What matters is holding the Chinese Communist Party accountable so this doesn’t happen again.”
Even if the virus emerged from a laboratory, that doesn’t mean it was man made or that the world was deliberately exposed.
The issue in Washington this week has evolved into an excuse for Republicans to target scientists and government health experts and to twist a narrative about Covid-19, which still has massive gaps.
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China has never had to pay for its support of Russia. This (would be) the first time – it is a very important crossroads,” Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former deputy national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council, said on CNN Monday.
This new front in the US-China relationship is also starting to be seen in US politics. While being tough on Beijing is a bipartisan position, the idea of a broader conflict inUkraine conflicts with the more limited view of US power projection abroad among “America First” Republicans. Traditional hawks like Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell strongly support even more US aid for Ukraine, but some conservatives like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – a likely 2024 contender – have warned against escalating conflict. He mentioned potential Chinese involvement in a foreign policy comment last week.
His comments were a reminder that everything in Washington is ultimately political. And few issues are as politicized as tortured US relations with China.
The first few months of a divided Congress have seen divisive debates about how to address the nation’s debt limit or border security. But many Republicans and Democrats agree that focusing on the U.S.-China relationship needs to be a top priority.
Illinois congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi says he gets a lot of calls from people concerned about China’s influence.
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“Everyone seems to have their own stories, whether they are a small business person or whether they’re concerned about the crackdown on dissent or human rights,” he told NPR.
Gallagher is worried about TikTok’s ability to influence the flow of information that Americans see and share, telling NPR “it can be used to influence the news, what people see and talk about, and, therefore, to interfere in our society and our politics and our very democracy. So I think we’re nearing a very dangerous inflection point here.”
“The algorithms are also controlled ultimately by the CCP. Krishnamoorthi said that it’s deeply disturbing because you have user data which is ultimately under the control of the CCP.
TikTok has been working with the U.S. users to make sure that their data is secure, and has even started a public relations campaign with meetings in Washington with the company’s CEO.
Many legislators saw the Chinese government’s attempts to spy on the U.S. as an egregious example of what they are capable of. The incident also heightened the urgency within Congress to push for a comprehensive plan to tackle what they see as rising security threats.
“This is not a military challenge. China has used its commercial, military and technological applications in ways no other nation has so it’s a multifaceted challenge,” Rubio said.
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Gallagher traveled to Taiwan on an unexplained trip last week and met with Taiwanese officials. Those officials also visited with a separate bipartisan House delegation.
Krishnamoorthy said that they wanted to do everything they can to help Taiwan deter or prevent aggression by the CCP. “We don’t want open hostilities to break out in that part of the world, which could lead to very severe consequences for the region.”
McCaul, the chairman of the House foreign affairs panel, claims that there is a threat from the Chinese Communist Party.
Van Hollen says that it’s time for Congress to change how China is treated. He told NPR that China shouldn’t be categorized as a developing nation.
There is a limit to what congress can do when it comes to dealing with China.
“I think we need to develop a more comprehensive and tactical strategy and that’s something that’ll not be done by Congress,” he said. “That’s something done by State Department, other agencies of government and, in my opinion, external experts who offer perspective that you wouldn’t get from within the buildings of government.”
The Congress should focus on skills training for our workers in order to be competitive in Artificial Intelligence and other fields, according to Krishnamoorthy. He also says the U.S. immigration system penalizes those who come to innovate but are forced to leave because they can’t get visas.
“As a result of this shooting itself in the foot on immigration, it has real world consequences when the regimes take advantage of our weaknesses and it comes back to haunt us.”
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