APEC Summit Signals Diplomatic Thaw Amidst Strained US-China Relations

In a significant diplomatic turn, U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping are set to engage in bilateral talks on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco this week. This highly anticipated meeting marks the first direct contact between the two leaders since their encounter in Bali, Indonesia, a year ago.

This pivotal event comes against the backdrop of a tumultuous year in US-China relations, with a sequence of events reshaping the dynamics between the two global powers.

Spy Balloon Incident Sparks Tensions

The turning point in this strained relationship occurred in February when a high-altitude balloon, reportedly of Chinese origin, breached U.S. and Canadian airspace. President Biden swiftly ordered the U.S. military to intercept the balloon, prompting a postponement of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s planned visit to China. This incident led to a rapid deterioration in relations that had been gradually improving since the November 2022 meeting between Biden and Xi in Bali.

President Biden justified the interception, stating on February 16, “The violation of our sovereignty is unacceptable. We will act to protect our country, and we did.” Beyond shooting down the balloon, the U.S. imposed restrictions on six firms supporting the People’s Liberation Army aerospace program, signalling a shift towards a more assertive stance.

Biden’s Multifaceted Approach to China

Throughout the year, President Biden maintained a multifaceted approach to the US-China relationship. In his State of the Union address on February 7, he emphasized the need for healthy competition, not conflict, with China. The focus was on investing in American innovation and industries to prevent China’s potential dominance in critical sectors. Biden reiterated this stance during his travels to India and Vietnam in September, emphasizing the importance of adherence to international rules.

The President expressed concerns about China’s economic challenges, referring to it as a “ticking time bomb” during a political fundraiser in Utah on August 10. However, he clarified that the goal is not to harm China but to prevent the enhancement of capabilities that could pose threats to regional stability.

President Biden did not shy away from likening Chinese leader Xi Jinping to a dictator on multiple occasions. In his State of the Union address, he challenged world leaders to name one who would willingly change places with Xi, highlighting a rhetorical stance against autocratic regimes.

Xi Jinping’s Rare Criticism of the U.S.

Unlike politicians in Western countries, Chinese leader Xi Jinping rarely engages in impromptu speeches or press conferences. However, his carefully prepared remarks during the annual Two Sessions of the National People’s Congress in March provided a rare glimpse into China’s perspective.

Xi noted a dramatic change in China’s external environment, citing uncertainties and unpredictable factors, especially with Western countries implementing comprehensive containment and suppression. This reflects China’s perception of facing unprecedented challenges to its development.

In response to external pressures, Xi sought solidarity with Russia, emphasizing mutual support for core interests and joint resistance against external forces interfering in domestic affairs. This move underlines China’s strategy of forming alliances to counterbalance Western influence.

Xi has been vocal in his opposition to the “de-risking” strategy implemented by the U.S. and Western countries against China, equating it with “decoupling.” He criticized the U.S. and the West on multiple occasions, opposing protectionism, unilateral sanctions, and the notion of ‘decoupling and breaking links.’

Recent Developments and Signs of Thaw

Recent months have witnessed a cautious re-engagement between the U.S. and China. High-level interactions resumed in May, with Chinese Minister of Commerce Wang Wentao visiting Washington and meeting with U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo. The assumption of office by China’s new ambassador to the U.S., Xie Feng, further signalled a renewed diplomatic effort.

In June, Xi Jinping welcomed former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, emphasizing the foundational role of people-to-people connections in Sino-U.S. relations. This sentiment was echoed in Xi’s meeting with a bipartisan delegation of the U.S. Senate in October, where he stressed the importance of improving relations for mutual benefits.

As President Biden and President Xi prepare to meet once again, the world watches with anticipation for signs of progress in addressing shared challenges and finding common ground. The summit is seen as a crucial opportunity to defuse tensions and rebuild diplomatic channels in a relationship that has far-reaching implications for global stability.

This breaking news highlights the nuanced developments and delicate balancing act both leaders face as they navigate the complex landscape of US-China relations, underscoring the significance of diplomatic initiatives amidst geopolitical shifts.

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