Relations between the administrations of Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden have been made even more complicated by the Russia-Ukraine war. Photos: AFP / Nicolas Asfouri, Nicholas Kamm

US President Joe Biden recently announced that he may be talking to his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping soon. The proposed phone call between Biden and Xi, accompanied by suggestions of an in-person meet later this year, demonstrates the US administration’s determination to engage with the Chinese leadership.

The proposed phone call would be the latest in a series of conversations between the two leaders, and has been preceded by considerable work by officials on both sides. The initial conversation between the Biden administration and Chinese officials in March 2021 was less than cordial. Subsequently, the two presidents had virtual meetings in November 2021 and March this year.

This March, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Yang Jiechi, a high-ranking member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC), had a marathon seven-hour meeting in Rome touching on many of the points of discomfiture in bilateral ties. 

Given that the tensions underlying the US-China relationship appear to remain largely unchanged, this keenness to keep the lines of communication open may well be attributed to one or a combination of the following factors.

First, the possibility that engaging at the highest level at this time may allow for the least objectionable concessions in their toolkits of transactional diplomacy to be made.  

Second, the 20th National Congress of the CPC and the mid-term elections in the US are definitive and critical markers for Xi and Biden. The optics of the upcoming call, regardless of whether it proves productive or disruptive, would serve as a valuable opportunity.

Both leaders can weave an opportune narrative where the other side could be positioned as the adversary responsible for most, if not all, of their national challenges. For Xi, a diplomatic success – perceived or real – with the US would considerably strengthen his leadership position before the National Congress. 

Third is a conviction that such leader-to-leader engagement could serve as a safety valve, especially during times, such as the present context in Sino-US relations, fraught with tensions. That conviction was evident in Biden’s call last year for strengthening “guardrails to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict.” 

However, preserving the “guardrails” that Biden qualified as being critical to Sino-US relations comes with a curious set of complications. While on the one hand it demands an engagement in seemingly less conflictual facets of the bilateral relation, it also necessitates a reiteration of what the red lines are

In fact, Biden administration officials have explicitly stated that Beijing should carefully weigh the “implication and consequences of China providing material support to Russia,” and desist from provocative actions to “maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

While it is not certain if Chinese officials have conceded to such US demands, numerous reports suggest that the proposed phone call may be a precursor to the US lifting a few of the additional tariffs imposed on Chinese goods under the presidency of Donald Trump.

Considering that US officials have contended that the additional tariffs were a response to China’s unfair trade practices, the considerations of lifting tariffs seem more to be a consequence of soaring domestic inflation in the US than any perceptible shift in the Chinese trade practices. 

The Chinese economy is going through a slump, with even Premier Li Keqiang admitting that the country has a crisis at hand. Recent data suggest that the Chinese economy grew at 2.5% in the first six months of the year, a rate of growth worryingly unsatisfactory by any accounts for Beijing.

This would in effect dent Chinese clout as the fulcrum of global economic growth – a status it has leveraged to acquire international influence across domains and sectors.

In such a scenario, the appeal of easing tensions with the US without having to make any explicit trade and economic concessions from China is understandably appealing to Beijing. Further, while removing additional tariffs would, in fact, increase investor confidence in China, it would simultaneously convey the impression that the US is not serious about scaling down economic engagement with China. 

For China, compared with Trump’s unpredictable and punitive policies, the sustained engagement of the Biden administration, undergirded by a recognition that ties with Beijing cannot and will not be approached as one of stark binaries, must have come as welcome relief.

It is likely that the Biden administration sees the well-entrenched interdependence between the two largest economies of the world as amplifying the limits of any zero-sum strategic calculation. Nonetheless, both sides will be focused on relative gains.

Of course, the Russians will be closely watching the outcome of the intense diplomatic engagement between China and the US. Moscow may perceive any genuine rapprochement between China and the US as carrying the potential to undermine the Russia-China entente. It would be expected of Beijing to work assiduously to avoid such perceptions.  

For a while now, Washington has, for all intents, been expressing concerns regarding human rights in Xinjiang, the CPC’s policies in Hong Kong, Beijing’s handling of the Covid-19 outbreak, Chinese disregard of the international tribunal verdict on the South China Sea, and its persistent territorial violations against US allies and partners.

Yet US foreign policy currently is marked by the dichotomy of calling for rigorous sanctions against Russia, while simultaneously making strenuous efforts to engage with China despite that litany of complaints. The only variable in this apparent disjunction, then, is that of intrinsic and recognized power – a measure most fundamental in international relations.

Sanjay Pulipaka

Sanjay Pulipaka is an independent researcher on international politics and security issues. He was a Wrangler Pavate Fellow at the University of Cambridge and a former Fulbright Fellow in the US.

Cauvery Ganapathy

Cauvery Ganapathy is an analyst of international relations and a strategic risk management consultant. She has been a Wrangler Pavate Fellow at the University of Cambridge and a Fulbright Doctoral Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley.