Joe Biden and Xi Jinping’s agreement to begin “strategic stability talks” to reduce the risk of nuclear conflict was an unexpected breakthrough at a “virtual meeting” focused on stabilising a US-China relationship that has deteriorated to its lowest level in more than four decades.
The US president opened the more than three-hour long video session with his Chinese counterpart by citing the need for “guardrails” to ensure that the two countries’ intense competition did “not veer into conflict”.
While it will be difficult enough implementing safeguards over issues such as Taiwan — the island claimed by Beijing that has emerged as the most dangerous hotspot in Asia since Biden took office — extending them to the two superpowers’ emerging nuclear rivalry will be an even greater challenge.
Evan Medeiros, an Asian affairs adviser to Barack Obama now at Georgetown University, said he was “sceptical” about the nascent nuclear initiative, which was revealed by Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser.
“Putting ‘guardrails’ around nukes is a good idea in theory, but can it be done in practice at a time of deep distrust and rapidly growing capabilities?” Medeiros asked.
“Will Xi empower senior officials, including in the People’s Liberation Army, with the authority to have meaningful dialogues with the US about nukes, space and cyber [issues]?”
Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, also questioned the likelihood of success. “Holding talks is a necessary first step, but the real question is whether the parties have anything substantive to say to one another,” he said.
The US has tried to engage China in nuclear talks before, but those efforts failed largely because Beijing did not see the value in negotiating restraints when the US possessed a much bigger nuclear arsenal.
Over recent years the PLA has dramatically increased its nuclear weapons programme in ways that suggest China is abandoning its 50-year policy of “minimum deterrence”. Last week the Pentagon said the PLA intended to quadruple its nuclear warheads to at least 1,000 by 2030.
Ryan Hass, a China expert at the Brookings Institution, said this week’s meeting may have “opened a window for both sides to test whether progress can be made in reducing strategic risk”.
Possible agreements, he added, could include “an understanding that all nuclear launch decisions must be made by humans and not artificial intelligence-enabled systems, or [refraining from] activities in space that generate orbital debris”.
“The video call suggests that China-US relations have at least finally reached bottom,” added Wang Chong, a foreign affairs professor at Zhejiang International Studies University. “Now [the relationship] is more about competition than confrontation and conflict.”
Few experts had expected the US and China to resolve their differences over Taiwan, which Beijing regularly threatens with air force sorties near the island. Biden said he supported the “one-China” policy in which the US recognises Beijing as the seat of government, while also expressing concern about Chinese military activity around Taiwan.
Underscoring the gap, however, Xi told Biden that Taiwan’s government and anyone supporting Taiwanese independence risked crossing Beijing’s “red lines” on the issue. In doing so, he added, they were “playing with fire” and would only succeed in “burning themselves”.
“Xi blamed Taiwan for [the] tensions and added the threat about China’s red line,” said Kori Schake at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Biden, she added, at least “reassured Xi the US remains committed to the ‘one-China’ policy”.
One conundrum facing both presidents is their different visions about what they believe constitutes a more stable bilateral relationship. While Washington says Beijing’s behaviour on a range of issues is not that of a responsible international actor, China’s focus is on stopping what it sees as US interference in “core” interests such as Taiwan and Hong Kong, where Xi has used a tough national security law to crush the territory’s pro-democracy movement.
The groundwork for Biden and Xi’s meeting was laid last month by Sullivan and Yang Jiechi, the Chinese Communist party’s top foreign affairs official, at a meeting in Switzerland.
According to people familiar with their discussions, Yang told Sullivan that Xi wanted stability ahead of the annual meeting of the party’s Central Committee in November, the Beijing Winter Olympics in February and a Chinese party congress in late 2022 at which he is expected to secure an unprecedented third term in power.
“Xi is going to want to focus on domestic politics over the next year,” said Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing. “He’s going to do what he can to reduce uncertainties in US-China relations, put the relationship on a more stable footing and reduce the risk of complicating his own domestic political goals.”
Additional reporting by Xinning Liu in Beijing