The recent summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping in San Francisco may have presented an optimistic facade, but beneath the surface, it is evident that the deep-seated differences in the US-China relationship remain largely unaddressed. While both sides sought to project an image of successful diplomacy, the reality is that this summit did little to reset the course of a rocky year in the relationship between the world’s two largest economies. Moreover, the upcoming high-stakes presidential elections in Taiwan and the United States in 2024 will add another layer of complexity to an already strained relationship.

The summit in San Francisco was marked by a carefully orchestrated display of diplomatic cordiality. President Biden, facing significant foreign policy challenges such as the proxy war in Ukraine and a new conflict in the Middle East, had a vested interest in portraying the summit as a success. After all, war is often seen as a failure of diplomacy. While it was unrealistic to expect a major breakthrough in the relationship, the four-hour talks did yield some tangible results. Both sides agreed to cooperate on various fronts, including controlling the flow of narcotic drugs, resuming military-to-military communications, addressing the risks posed by artificial intelligence, and expanding exchanges in education, business, and culture.

These outcomes, though modest, can be seen as a step in the right direction. However, it’s worth noting that no joint statement was issued after the summit, underscoring the lingering divisions.

One of the central points of contention between the two leaders was the issue of Taiwan. President Xi firmly asserted that, regardless of US actions, the reunification of Taiwan with mainland China is “inevitable.” In contrast, President Biden emphasized competition between the United States and China and stated that the US would always protect its interests, values, and alliances. This marked a stark departure from the “Bali spirit,” where the US had previously offered “five noes” assurances to China. Notably, the White House readout of the San Francisco meeting did not mention these assurances, raising questions about whether they still hold. The gap in strategic perception and mutual understanding between the two sides appears substantial, casting doubt on whether substantive negotiations occurred during the four-hour discussion.

A careful analysis of the summit’s outcomes suggests that President Biden may have focused more on domestic political optics, attempting to appear strong before his domestic audience. Meanwhile, President Xi seemed to have a global audience in mind, presenting China’s vision of “peaceful co-existence” while emphasizing the inevitability of Taiwan’s reunification.

One of the most explosive issues in the US-China relationship is Taiwan. The upcoming Taiwan presidential election, scheduled for January 13, 2024, holds immense significance for the dynamics between the two nations. There is a glimmer of hope that fortuitous circumstances may help calm the waters surrounding Taiwan. If the two main opposition parties, the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), field a joint candidate, it could result in a formidable ticket with a high chance of victory.

This political development could impact the delicate Taiwan question by potentially fostering improved cross-strait dialogues after the election, providing a temporary respite in the Washington-Beijing-Taipei triangle.

The overarching question stemming from the summit is whether President Biden succeeded in affirming that the United States, despite its setbacks in the Ukraine war and the beginning of a new conflict in the Middle East, remains in a position of strength in its relationship with China. Furthermore, the summit raised the issue of whether China is heeding US entreaties to roll back its relations with Russia and Iran. Unfortunately, the indications suggest otherwise.

China’s relationship with Russia, in particular, remains a significant challenge to US foreign policy objectives. While the United States may have expected China to distance itself from Russia following the Ukraine conflict, this has not materialized.

The two nations have continued to deepen their strategic partnership, creating a geopolitical challenge for the United States.

While symbolizing a renewed willingness to engage in dialogue, the San Francisco summit falls short of addressing the fundamental differences that underlie the US-China relationship. While re-establishing communication channels is a positive development, whether the two superpowers can make meaningful progress in resolving their divergent interests and concerns remains to be seen. The upcoming Taiwan election adds a layer of complexity to the relationship, with potentially significant implications. However, the larger question of whether the United States can maintain its position of strength in the face of ongoing challenges, particularly in light of China’s continued cooperation with Russia and Iran, remains unanswered. As the US-China relationship continues to evolve, it is clear that the path forward will require careful navigation and the ability to adapt to changing dynamics on the global stage.

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