As Joe Biden settles into the White House, there’s been endless debate about what his China policy should, could, and will be. Yet it takes two superpowers to tango, so Xi Jinping’s approach to Biden will be every bit as critical as Biden’s to Xi—perhaps even more so. Any significant improvement in U.S.-China relations is impossible unless Xi is willing to dance.
Is he? We don’t know with any certainty. Xi doesn’t share very much about his thinking on U.S. policy. He rarely ever even mentions the U.S. by name. As with so much else in China, we’re stuck parsing Xi’s comments, dissecting his actions, and making some educated projections.
A picture does emerge from the murk. And unfortunately for global stability and prosperity, it doesn’t look good.
The reason can be found in how Xi has changed China and China’s role in the world. Donald Trump’s rejection of traditional U.S. foreign policy principles grabbed the headlines, but Xi’s break with Beijing’s past practices has been just as dramatic. And while Trump has been shown the door by American voters, Xi isn’t going anywhere, and neither is his agenda. In that sense, Xi’s impact on the world may prove to be greater and more fundamental than Trump’s. And that may make China’s rapprochement with the U.S. difficult, if not downright impossible.
Sure, Beijing is sending some positive signals. At the virtual Davos summit on Jan. 25, in his first speech since Biden’s inauguration, Xi called on the world to abandon an “outdated Cold War mentality,” adding that “confrontation will lead us to a dead end.” And there are ways Biden and Xi can at least tamp down tensions. Xi will probably be open to cutting small deals to achieve specific ends. For instance, he could offer Biden a few concessions on trade or market access for U.S. companies to get remaining Trump tariffs on Chinese goods lifted. He may also find more avenues of engagement with Biden than with Trump—for example, a shared concern about climate change.
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