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  • Writer's pictureIan Murphy

The Biden-Xi Summit Through Kissinger's Lens

The highly anticipated summit between President Biden and Xi Jinping took place on November 15th, 2023, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco, California. This was the first in person meeting between both leaders in over a year and was viewed as a crucial step in managing the tense bilateral relationship between the United States and China. Although this meeting came during the ongoing U.S-China tech competition, it surprised many observers by leading to concrete agreements. Lessons from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s book On China can be applied to this meeting to better understand the reasoning behind China’s recent engagement with the U.S. and the future of U.S-China cooperation. 


Outcomes of the Biden-Xi Summit at APEC Biden-Xi Summit at APEC


The Biden-Xi summit yielded several concrete outcomes aimed at reducing tensions and expanding cooperation between the U.S. and China. Both leaders pledged to curb the deadly fentanyl trade by establishing a joint working group to enhance law enforcement coordination. Additionally, they agreed to restore military-to-military communication channels to mitigate miscalculation risks, which is viewed as a positive sign of de-escalation amidst heightened tensions in the Taiwan Strait.


On the side of transnational security, Biden and Xi committed to maintaining high-level dialogues to mitigate the effects of climate change. They also agreed to launch new dialogues on artificial intelligence governance, reflecting their shared interests in fostering responsible AI development. Perhaps the  cornerstone of the meeting was the acknowledgement that both the U.S. and China should manage their bilateral relationship responsibly, maintain open communication and constructive dialogue on disagreements, and prevent the escalation of conflict. 


A lot of the themes observed during the Biden-Xi meeting have been in play since rapprochement with China beginning in 1972, as outlined by Henry Kissinger in his book On China. While major differences remain, these summit outcomes represent meaningful confidence-building measures and a base to build on for a more stable bilateral relationship. 


Lessons from Henry Kissinger’s book On China


Henry Kissinger’s experiences as both Secretary of State and National Security Advisor has added to his insight into U.S-China diplomatic relations. His years of diplomatic experience with China provides readers of On China with a foundational understanding of Chinese culture and strategic thinking. In his book, Kissinger emphasizes the following points:


  1. The Importance of Historical Context: Kissinger emphasizes the importance of understanding China's long and continuous history to appreciate its contemporary behavior. He argues that China's sense of exceptionalism, rooted in its unique historical and cultural context, has shaped its foreign policy.

  2. The Cyclical Nature of Chinese Politics: Kissinger highlights the cyclical nature of Chinese politics, characterized by periods of unity and fragmentation. He argues that understanding this cyclical pattern is crucial for anticipating China's future trajectory.

  3. The Importance of Internal Order: Kissinger emphasizes the centrality of internal order in Chinese political thought. He argues that maintaining stability within its borders has been a primary concern for Chinese rulers throughout history.

  4. The Challenges of Managing Sino-American Relations: Kissinger acknowledges the complex and often fraught relationship between China and the United States. He argues that both countries must navigate their differences carefully to avoid conflict and foster cooperation.

  5. The Need for Mutual Respect and Understanding: Kissinger stresses the importance of mutual respect and understanding between China and the West. He argues that both sides must appreciate each other's cultural and historical perspectives to build a constructive relationship.

  6. The Dangers of Misperception: Kissinger warns against the dangers of misperception and misunderstanding in Sino-American relations. He argues that both countries must communicate clearly and avoid making assumptions about each other's intentions.

  7. The Importance of Multilateral Cooperation: Kissinger advocates for multilateral cooperation to address global challenges such as nuclear proliferation, climate change, and pandemics. He argues that China and the United States have a shared responsibility to promote global stability.



Applying These Lessons


Although the summit between Biden and Xi Jinping was amicable, it does not mean the United States is abandoning its security commitments in the Indo-Pacific. President Biden has shown that he has a good grasp on China’s long-term goals and motivations by taking a number of steps to push back against China’s growing assertiveness. These steps include increasing military spending in the Pacific, forming alliance networks between U.S. allies, restrictions on transferring sensitive technology to Chinese firms, and continuing freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea. Even with formal diplomatic relations being established in 1979, we can see a lot of Henry Kissinger’s points resurfacing in the Biden-Xi summit.


Essentially, there is both a push and a pull acting on Chinese leadership that led them to engage with the United States on various issues. China has a desire to be included in global decision making and wants to be treated as a global power, which is why this summit was held alongside APEC in San Francisco. On the other hand, China is not ready for direct confrontation with the United States or start a conflict over Taiwan as the Chinese domestic economy continues to struggle after the Covid-19 pandemic.


China will also seek to maintain authoritarian control within its own borders, but it is still a pragmatic power that will work with the United States if it is in its own best interest. Instead of pressuring the Chinese to overhaul their political system, the spirit of the summit was based on the importance of communication and mutual understanding. This meeting alone will not resolve U.S-China tensions, but it is a good start for aligning interests and tackling transnational challenges.


This article was previously published on The News Lens International on November 29, 2023.

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