Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden. Biden has signaled that the US wants to prevent competition from escalating into confrontation. Photo: AFP / Paul J Richards

The big question about the meeting between US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Chinese Politburo member Yang Jiechi in Zurich on Wednesday is whether it will open the door to the pathway leading to a historic Sino-American summit. 

The short answer is “yes.” However, Sullivan and Yang have the onerous task of skillfully tacking the sailboat of the US-China relationship. The main problem for tacking a sailboat is of course that the wind is coming heavily on one side of the boat and how to turn the bow through the wind until the sail catches the wind on the other side. 

Evidently, it is not easy to accomplish and requires not only steady hands and precision of thinking but perfect coordination of the sort that does not exist between Washington and Beijing. 

The White House readout on the talks in Zurich is unnecessarily defensive, with an eye on the domestic audience, perhaps.

In contrast, the Chinese readout, as reported by Xinhua, claimed that the six-hour talks were held in a “candid manner” and the two highly placed diplomats had “a comprehensive and in-depth exchange of views” on the bilateral relations as well as international and regional issues of common concern. The meeting was described as “constructive, and conducive to enhancing mutual understanding.” 

According to Xinhua, Yang and Sullivan “agreed to take action, following the spirit of the phone call between Chinese and US heads of state on September 10, strengthen strategic communication, properly manage differences, avoid confrontation and conflict, seek mutual benefit and win-win results, and work together to bring China-US relations back to the right track of sound and steady development.” 

The report added, “Yang said that China attaches importance to the positive remarks on China-US relations made recently by US President Joe Biden, and China has noticed that the US side said it has no intention to contain China’s development, and is not seeking a ‘new Cold War.’” 

Neither readout throws much light on selective cooperation between the US and China in the near term. Beijing had taken a stance that selective cooperation was unrealistic so long as the Biden administration pursued hostile policies and interfered in China’s internal affairs. 

Politburo member Yang Jiechi. The Chinese side said his talks with Jake Sullivan were constructive. Photo: AFP / Frederic J. Brown

Having said that, Global Times has noted, “The press releases issued by both sides were more positive in their respective contexts. This suggests that the meeting was productive.… There were no negative descriptions and accusations against the other side in both public press releases. There was only more subtle language about the differences between the two countries.”  

US officials reportedly told the media later that Sullivan and Yang also discussed the possibility of a video meeting between the two heads of state by the end of this year. 

Clearly, the differences between the US and China are of a serious nature. China will not accept the US pretensions of speaking “from a position of strength.” On the other hand, it is palpable of late that the Biden administration’s rhetoric is mellowing – no longer confrontational, and repeatedly underscoring that Washington does not want to see a “new Cold War.”

President Biden’s open assurance regarding Taiwan on the eve of the meeting in Zurich was indeed most meaningful, signaling that the US wants to prevent competition from escalating into confrontation. 

If the unceremonious retreat from the situation surrounding the house arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou carried a certain positive message, AUKUS, as Beijing sees it, turns out to be more of an acrimonious topic in the trans-Atlantic alliance. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has virtually closed the Covid-origin file.

Most important, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced in a speech on Monday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think-tank in Washington that the US will hold “frank conversations” with China on trade in the near future. Beijing has taken that as a positive signal that constructive talks can be expected. 

The talks will include the Phase 1 trade agreement, but Tai said they are not intended to “inflame trade tensions with China.” (China missed out on buying US$200 billion worth of extra goods from the US in 2020 and 2021.) Interestingly, Tai also talked about “a targeted tariff exclusion process” for exemptions from customs tariffs imposed on $370 billion worth of Chinese goods a year by the previous administration of Donald Trump. 

Trump’s “tariff war” has proved to be counterproductive, and it took a toll on American consumers and manufacturers. The US could neither find alternatives for Chinese products nor force industrial chains to move out of China. Looking ahead, the tariffs will only weaken the Biden administration’s efforts to combat inflation. 

Significantly, Tai gave away the bottom line even before the trade talks get started – that it is not the Biden administration’s intention to seek an economic decoupling from China, and instead she will be working for a “re-coupling” that will bring more benefits to American businesses, including larger access to China’s huge market.

In political terms, it is hugely consequential for Biden if China steps up purchases of agricultural products from the US. According to reports, in mid-September, Chinese companies placed new orders for about a million tons of US soybeans alone. 

Once the focus returns to trade and economic issues, the interdependency in the US-China relationship can only deepen and give a new momentum to the overall relationship. Xinjiang, Hong Kong, etc are only peripheral issues that creep to the center stage when engagement remains suboptimal. 

Without doubt, there are profound contradictions in the relationship, which will not go away by holding a summit meeting. What Biden hopes to achieve at this stage is a less ambitious goal of stabilizing relations and reverse, if possible, the dangerous downward spiral lately. That means creating room for diplomatic maneuver. 

Certainly, it entails the US taking a pragmatic approach, aimed at avoiding gratuitous escalation of tensions. Herein lies the rub. For so long as sources of tension remain, whether a positive trend can be sustained remains to be seen. Much could still go wrong. 

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. He and Yang discussed the possibility of a video meeting between the two heads of state. Photo: AFP / Mandel Ngan

That said, there is also a deeper truth. China cannot be blamed for Washington’s failure to adapt to its rise. The excessive focusing on the NATO enlargement since the 1990s, the costly overreach in the Middle Eastern wars in the following two decades, and all this amid the appalling failure to address looming domestic problems, including decaying infrastructure and faltering public education – China cannot be blamed for any of these.

Nonetheless, the view that China is the United States’ chief competitor and even adversary has become widespread and ingrained in America. When it comes to China, the sort of solid bipartisan anti-Russian consensus in the Congress may not tie the hands of Biden, but unwelcome congressional intervention cannot be ruled out.

The good part is that the United States’ European allies will be supportive of Biden’s engagement with China. Many European Union governments also recognize the systemic rivalry inherent in the relationship with Beijing, but a majority of Europeans still do not see China as a threat to their way of life and only a very minuscule opinion would probably believe that China rules the world.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.