President Joe Biden's administration is taking stock of a newly empowered Xi Jinping as the Chinese president begins a third, norm-breaking five-year term as Communist Party leader. With U.S.-Chinese relations already fraught, concerns are growing in Washington that more difficult days may be ahead.
Xi has amassed a measure of power over China’s ruling party unseen since Mao Zedong, the leader from 1949 until his death in 1976. Xi's consolidation of power comes as the United States has updated its defense and national security strategies to reflect that China is now America's most potent military and economic adversary.
Biden takes pride in having built rapport with Xi since first meeting him more than a decade ago, when they served as their countries' vice presidents. But Biden now faces, in Xi, a counterpart buoyed by a greater measure of power and determined to cement China's superpower status even while navigating strong economic and diplomatic headwinds.
“We’re not back in the Mao era. Xi Jinping is not Mao,” said Jude Blanchette, chair of China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But we are definitely in new territory and unpredictable territory in terms of the stability and predictability of China’s political system.”
Biden and Xi are expected to hold talks on the sidelines of next month’s Group of 20 summit in Indonesia, a long-anticipated meeting that would come after nearly two years of tense relations. The leaders are dug into winning the upper hand in a competition that both believe will determine which country is the leading global economic and political force driving the next century.
“There’s an awful lot of issues for us to talk to China about," said National Security Council spokesman John Kirby. He added that U.S. and Chinese officials have been working to arrange a meeting of the leaders, though one has yet to be confirmed. “Some issues are fairly contentious and some should be collaborative," Kirby said.
Biden and Xi traveled together in the U.S. and China in 2011 and 2012, and they have held five phone or video calls since Biden became president in January 2021. But the U.S.-China relationship has become far more complicated since those getting-to-know-you talks over meals in Washington and on the Tibetan plateau a decade ago.
As president, Biden has repeatedly taken China to task for human rights abuses against the Uyghur people and other ethnic minorities, Beijing's crackdowns on democracy activists in Hong Kong, coercive trade practices, military provocations against self-ruled Taiwan and differences over Russia’s prosecution of its war against Ukraine.
Xi’s government has criticized the Biden administration’s posture toward Taiwan — which Beijing looks eventually to unify with the communist mainland — as undermining China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The Chinese president also has suggested that Washington wants to stifle Beijing's growing clout as it tries to overtake the U.S. as the world's largest economy.
“External attempts to suppress and contain China may escalate at any time,” Xi warned in his address before the Communist Party congress. “We must therefore be more mindful of potential dangers, be prepared to deal with worst-case scenarios, and be ready to withstand high winds, choppy waters and even dangerous storms.”
Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago who researches Chinese politics, said there are some potentially stabilizing developments emerging in the relationship after months of rancor.
Two of China's best-known diplomats in Washington were elevated at the Communist Party meeting. Foreign Minister Wang Yi was selected for the Communist Party’s Politburo, the policymaking body made up of the 24 most senior officials. China’s ambassador to the U.S., Qin Gang, is joining its central committee. Their elevation should bring a measure of continuity to the U.S.-China relationship, Yang said.
Yang noted there has also been an effort on the part of the Communist Party leadership to “tone down its warm embrace of Russia.” Last month, after meeting with Xi on the sidelines of a summit in Uzbekistan, Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged that Xi had expressed “concern and questions” about the war in Ukraine.
With his third term confirmed, "in some ways, Xi is now freer to act and less encumbered in terms of no longer having to always watch what his rivals are doing,” Yang said. “I think that actually may affect his approach and may make him more comfortable in dealing with Biden.”
White House officials have played down hopes that Xi's new five-year hold on the Communist Party could give him breathing room to more fully engage on matters where China has some overlapping interests with the U.S.
Biden, during a meeting with Defense Department officials on Wednesday, stressed that the U.S. was “not seeking conflict” with China. Hours later, Chinese state television reported Xi told members of the national committee on U.S.-China relations that Beijing should find ways to work with Washington on issues of mutual concern.
The conciliatory moment was short-lived.
The following day, U.S. and Chinese officials were trading rhetorical shots about the U.S. move earlier this month to expand export controls on the sale of advanced semiconductor chips to China.
“The U.S. has overstretched the national security concept and suppressed China’s development, and normal business cooperation has been politicized and weaponized,” Wang Hongxia, counselor at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, told reporters.
Her comments came not long after a top Commerce Department official, Undersecretary Alan Estevez, said at a Washington forum that “if I was a betting person, I would put down money” on the U.S. imposing additional export controls on China.
China’s economy is slowing, with Beijing reporting this month that growth for the first nine months of the year was 3%, putting it on pace to fall well below its official full-year target of 5.5%. The country’s economy is also dragging from strict “zero” COVID rules, and Beijing is confronting a deceleration in exports and home prices that fell to a seven-year low in September.
It also faces increased competition from a U.S. and European Union that are investing tens of billions of dollars to compete on semiconductors and other technologies. All of this points to the possibility that China might not eclipse U.S. gross domestic product by 2030 as many economists have forecast.
Ruchir Sharma, chairman of Rockefeller International, recently concluded that with its likely growth trajectory China would exceed the U.S. economy by 2060, if it manages to do so at all.
At the same time, Secretary of State Antony Blinken as well as the U.S. chief naval operations officer, Adm. Mike Gilday, have recently expressed concern that Beijing may try to step up its timeline to seize Taiwan. Blinken said China had made “a fundamental decision that the status quo was no longer acceptable."
China has largely refrained from criticizing Russia’s war in Ukraine, but also has held off on supplying Moscow with arms. Still, the conflict has raised concerns in Taiwan that China — which has never controlled the island — might be further emboldened to move on its long-stated plan for unification.
U.S.-China tensions have been further enflamed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's August visit to Taiwan and Biden’s remark in May that the U.S. military would defend Taiwan in case of an attack by China, comments the White House later played down.
“What’s concerning now is that with Xi’s unlimited power and ambition, he may use Taiwan to distract from his internal problems,” said Keith Krach, a former undersecretary of state during the Trump administration. “I hope he’s looked at the courage of the Ukrainians and reckoned that the people of Taiwan are just as courageous, perhaps even more so.”
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