At the start of this year, no one could have predicted what it would be that derailed the “Bali spirit”, a short-lived boost in US-China relations after President Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden’s sideline meeting at last year’s G20 summit in Indonesia.
The slow progress of a suspected Chinese spy balloon across the United States – and its eventual demise somewhere off the coast of South Carolina – put a hard stop to any rosy predictions of a thaw in relations. The balloon incident in February followed then US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s own flight across the Pacific to Taiwan in August last year, which led to China cutting off several high-level dialogues and which had probably already set ties back more significantly than the rogue balloon.
As Xi and Biden gear up for another face-to-face meeting at this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders' meeting, their first since Bali, the potential stumbling block this time round is far easier to predict. As the US approaches the 2024 presidential elections, there will be reduced room for anything that can be spun as being soft on China – yet the Biden administration has been determined in its efforts to at least put a floor under the relationship.
That’s not to say the meeting isn’t a welcome step. We’re likely to see some concrete movement on crucial low-hanging fruit: greater climate collaboration, perhaps, a vital resumption of military-to-military dialogues that were cancelled by Beijing in the wake of Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, and potentially more detail on artificial-intelligence (AI) governance following the UK’s AI Safety Summit and the launch of China’s own Global AI Governance Initiative.
The benefit of meeting on the APEC sidelines is that it is not just the US and China at the table. While Xi and Biden have had a couple of chances to meet before (for example at the G20), doing so at this APEC meeting provides both with a chance to signal to other APEC states their willingness to work within institutional frameworks. APEC is more suitable for this given the China-India tensions within the G20. The fact that G20 members are some of the world’s largest economies also means the forum doesn’t provide as much of an opportunity for the US and China to showcase institutional leadership. Additionally, APEC provides an opportunity for the US and China to solve shared issues. For example, they may be able to bring in Mexico, a key player in regulating the fentanyl trade, to look for triangular solutions to one of the US-China relationship’s sorest spots.
And arguably it is the build-up, not the meeting itself, that will prove most important in the long run. After a post-“balloon gate” lull, high-level engagement has finally resumed in earnest, with top Biden officials including Antony Blinken, Gina Raimondo, Janet Yellen and John Kerry all meeting their counterparts in Beijing. Just as significant was the visit last month of a bipartisan congressional delegation, which was afforded the rare honour of a meeting with President Xi and built relationships that will outlast any change of administration at the election.
More recently, top Chinese officials have been making the journey over to the US too, similarly looking to lay the groundwork for a successful “Bali spirit” meeting between the two leaders.
Make no mistake, the relationship is still at its lowest point for decades, but at least the back-and-forth shuttling is creating vital space for dialogue as both sides get used to being seen in the same room as one another after more than two years of pandemic-induced separation.
It’s clear that both sides are invested in their meeting on 15 November going smoothly – and there’s little chance it won’t. But the question is how much political space either side has to maintain that smoothness post-APEC.
Both sides will have one eye on an upcoming election in which China will have voter salience like never before. As much as the Biden administration is clearly looking to stabilise the relationship for now, campaign-trail rhetoric on China - an area of rare bipartisan consensus - will likely only stoke Beijing’s fears that it needs to prepare psychologically and institutionally for a permanently hostile US.
Already, a belief that China needs to protect itself from US-led efforts to contain its rise is driving, at least partially, a move to turbocharge high-tech innovation and gather support for China’s own values of political non-interference across the Global South. The risk is that this mutual suspicion shuts off avenues for meaningful collaboration between the world’s two most influential powers, even if at the business level there is still far more engagement than fraught high-level political discussions and trade restrictions might seem to suggest (the trans-Pacific chips trade, for example, is still doing brisk business).
The suspected spy balloon incident served as a stark reminder of just how delicate relations are and, as much as both sides may clearly recognise the material benefits of stabilised relations, if anything the political payoff is even smaller than it was this time last year. The APEC meeting may bring about a welcome peace, but it will be easily upset as both sides enter a period in which they will be more sensitive to offense – real or perceived – than normal.
The one upside, however, to a predictable stumbling block is that more can be done to mitigate it. Any “San Francisco spirit” will be fragile – but it’s in everyone’s interest to try to keep it alive.