Taipei, Taiwan – Analysts say Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first meeting this year with US President Joe Biden is a positive sign that the two superpowers want to improve their working relationship.
Xi and Biden met on Wednesday on the sidelines of the APEC summit in San Francisco, where they promised cooperation on issues such as artificial intelligence, climate change and reducing fentanyl supplies to the US.
They also pledged to restore military communications that were interrupted after then-Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s visit last year to Taiwan, a self-governing democracy that China considers its own territory.
While neither result was surprising, analysts said they represented a move in the right direction.
“This meeting will help us regenerate some political capital as both sides enter a year filled with many events that could cause tensions to rise again,” said Amanda Hsiao, Taipei-based senior China analyst at Crisis Group.
Taiwan’s presidential elections will be held on January 13, and the US presidential elections will be held in November next year. Relations with China are likely to feature prominently in both campaigns.
“One way to understand this is that this meeting will help create a buffer against what will inevitably be an increase in tensions,” Hsiao said.
Hsiao pointed to China’s message after the meeting, which called on the United States to specifically support “peaceful reunification with Taiwan” and stop arming the Taiwanese military. According to her, these are positive signals.
“The requests are more specific,” she said, suggesting that “tensions over Taiwan may be easing because, in some ways, this is an attempt by Beijing to negotiate as it tries to see what it can get out of the U.S.”
Alicia Garcia Herrero, Natixis chief economist for the Asia-Pacific region, described the meeting as a victory for Biden because Xi was forced – for now – to declare that China has no plans to attack Taiwan in the coming years.
“It’s a big win because it ties Xi’s hands in what he always considered ‘internal affairs,'” she said. “So that’s impressive.”
Still, observers will be closely watching China’s reaction to the upcoming elections in Taiwan. Beijing considers the Democratic Progressive Party on the island and its presidential candidate William Lai to be “separatists.”
Beijing, which has angered Taipei in the past, had planned to hold military exercises in the Taiwan Strait, fire missiles at Taiwan’s main island or step up air and sea patrols nearby.
If Lai wins, his victory could again give Beijing pause, but his chances were limited this week when his opponents from two more China-friendly political parties agreed to cooperate in the election.
Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the Indo-Pacific program at the German Marshall Fund in the US, said it was important to restore military contact after the Biden-Xi meeting.
She described the move as “very significant, but time will tell whether concrete progress has been made in avoiding accidents.”
Over the past few years, U.S. and Chinese ships and jets have had several near collisions in the Taiwan Strait, a body of water that China claims as its territory. The United States, like most countries, considers the strait to be international waters and regularly holds freedom of navigation exercises there with its allies.
Analysts have long worried that the accident could unintentionally spark an armed confrontation in the Taiwan Strait.
While the United States and China were never expected to completely put aside their differences, Biden and Xi still have plenty of reasons to tone down their rivalry, Glaser said. In addition to running for re-election in the already tumultuous US presidential election, Biden has two wars to worry about – in Ukraine and the Middle East.
Meanwhile, China’s economy is struggling on many fronts, including its housing market, and there are persistent U.S. export controls and restrictions on outbound investment in advanced technologies such as semiconductors.
Kharis Templeman, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution’s Taiwan Indo-Pacific project, said it was this concern that helped push Xi toward a more conciliatory meeting with Biden.
The two leaders had not met since last year’s G20 summit in Bali and seemed to be going well until a few weeks later China was accused of sending a spy balloon over the continental United States in February.
“Xi’s emphasis on economic issues and enabling China to develop and take its rightful place in the world [shows] is in a slightly more uncomfortable position now than it was a year ago,” Templeman said. “I suspect part of his desire to come to APEC and have a bilateral side meeting with Biden is based on economic concerns.”