Does face-to-face diplomacy ever change anything?
SAN FRANCISCO—U.S. President Joe Biden met his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco this week, in one of the most highly anticipated foreign meetings of Biden’s presidency. Though the aims of the meeting were limited, it has put to the test whether presidential diplomacy—and the right level of personal rapport between world leaders—can actually pave the way for major breakthroughs between the rival powers to avert the worst-case scenarios of an emerging new cold war.
In 1969, newly elected U.S. President Richard Nixon set out a mantra for his approach to foreign policy during a meeting with reporters on a trip to Europe: “When there is trust between men who are leaders of nations, there is a better chance to settle differences.” That stance led to historic foreign-policy breakthroughs—before Nixon resigned in disgrace—including major arms control deals with the Soviet Union and Nixon’s famous 1972 visit to China, dubbed as “the week that changed the world.”
More than five decades later, Biden is making a similar gamble against the backdrop of a new high-stakes geopolitical game with China: that face-to-face diplomacy with Xi can start to build up some trust and help stave off the risk of a conflict between two superpowers.
Many Western and Asian diplomats, as well as outside experts, lauded Biden’s efforts to dial down tensions with China, though whether that meeting yields results remains to be seen. “The Biden-Xi meeting sends a much-needed message to the rest of the world that even as the two countries compete, their leaders are committed to at least managing tensions and avoiding conflict,” said Prashanth Parameswaran, a fellow at the Wilson Center. Still, he added, “this is at best one step in a long road to finding a floor in the U.S.-China relationship, and it will not be without its share of obstacles.”
Every modern U.S. president has gambled on face-to-face meetings to net big gains on major foreign-policy initiatives. But it didn’t always used to be that way, and history shows inconsistent results when presidential diplomacy and personal rapport between world leaders aim for major foreign-policy wins.
The atmosphere of the Biden-Xi meeting in San Francisco—at least the portion reporters were allowed to see—was polite, if choreographed. Still, it belied the mood in Washington, where U.S. lawmakers and other top foreign-policy experts describe China as an “existential” threat to the United States. The relationship is so fraught that some even castigated Biden for meeting with Xi in the first place.
“China is not a normal country—it is an aggressor state,” said Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Biden is caving to Xi in exchange for a series of meaningless working groups and engagement mechanisms.”
Biden didn’t come to the meeting looking to resolve all the challenges of the U.S.-China relationship. He was, however, looking to refresh ties with Beijing with limited agreements on issues such as military communications and countering drug trafficking—and all the while banking on the personal touch to help him out. “There is no substitute to face-to-face discussions,” he told Xi on Wednesday, as the two met for a working lunch.
The question for many officials in San Francisco—and back in Washington and other capitals of U.S. allies—is whether even face-to-face discussions can ultimately mend U.S.-China ties.
“China watchers have seen this movie many times before, and it never ends well for Washington,” said Craig Singleton, a China expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Despite signs of renewed engagement, both Xi and Biden remain committed to their current confrontational course, which means the prospects for stabilization remain distant at best and foolhardy at worst.”
Xi during his opening meeting with Biden acknowledged the stakes of the meeting and the global power that the relationship between these two men potentially holds. “For two large countries like China and the United States, turning their back on each other is not an option,” he said. “Mr. President, you and I, we are at the helm of China-U.S. relations. We shoulder heavy responsibilities for the two peoples, for the world, and for history.”
Before reporters were shuffled out of the room, a Western reporter shouted a question in Mandarin to Xi on whether he trusts Biden. Xi took the translation earpiece out of his ear to hear the question. But he didn’t respond.