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Commentary: Joe Biden’s unsung shift on China

WASHINGTON: For several nerve-jangling months this year, US-China relations threatened to spiral out of control. The odds are that the giants will relapse into high tension, or worse. In the meantime, they are becoming quietly reacquainted.

It is hard to put a value on a dialogue that is unlikely to yield big breakthroughs. All you can do is imagine the alternative. In today’s Middle East, America’s ability to talk to China could be the difference between a regional war and its absence. 

The White House’s most urgent request to Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, who arrived in Washington on Thursday (Oct 26), will be to restrain Iran. Should Hezbollah, Tehran’s proxy army, open a second battle front in Israel, the chances of one of the two US aircraft carriers in the region striking Iran will rise.

Were China still refusing to take America’s calls – as was the case five months ago – that risk would be greater. It remains far too high as it is. There can be no downside to spelling out face-to-face to Wang the costs of a spiralling conflagration. 


Joe Biden will get little credit for putting US-China relations on a less perilous footing. That is partly because it generates few headlines.

Three US Cabinet secretaries – the US secretaries of state, treasury and commerce – have been to China since mid-June. None yielded swooning deliverables. Yet these were three more visits than in Biden’s previous two and a half years combined.

Wang’s trip will be the first visit to Washington by a Chinese foreign minister since before the pandemic. It is likely to pave the way for Xi Jinping’s attendance at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco next month – the first trip to the US by China’s president in almost seven years. 

Biden’s record has also been uneven. America’s shooting down in February of the Chinese spy balloon was a gift to caricaturists of America’s tendency to inflate threats.

Biden could also have stopped Nancy Pelosi, America’s outgoing Democrat speaker, from visiting Taiwan a year ago. Her trip needlessly stoked Chinese paranoia that the US was reconsidering its “One China” stance.

The only upside was to Pelosi’s domestic brand. Yet the chief blame for the freeze in bilateral relations belonged to China.


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Two things have given China pause to reconsider since then. 

The first is that China’s much-expected pandemic rebound has not happened. Its economic doldrums are largely homemade. Having subjected the Chinese to periodic bouts of what felt like house arrest, Xi abruptly switched from zero-COVID to double COVID.

It is one thing to stifle people’s freedom of movement in a larger cause. It is another to pivot to herd immunity without explanation. The lockdowns triggered the country’s angriest disaffection in years and damped the economy’s animal spirits. Investors detest few things more than uncertainty.

Xi’s economic ineptitude has been hard to overstate. The same applies to his ability to frighten China’s neighbours. 

The second change has thus been the speed with which the US has tightened its latticework of Asia-Pacific ties. Biden has re-established defence co-operation with the Philippines, launched a strategic partnership with Vietnam, encouraged Japan to double its defence spending, brokered a South Korea-Japan rapprochement at Camp David, and turned the Quad group with India, Australia and Japan into a feature of the landscape. There is also the 2021 AUKUS nuclear submarine deal with Australia and the United Kingdom.

None of these alone is game-changing. Collectively, they send a clear message. 

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