Tensions are reaching a fever pitch, but there seems to be interest on both sides in ratcheting it down. The question is, can they?

By Ethan Paul, Responsible Statecraft

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected to hold a virtual summit on Monday evening, their most high-profile meeting yet following phone calls in February and September. It comes at a moment of immense uncertainty and flux in the U.S.-China relationship, and its outcome has the potential to set the two sides on a course they will follow for the remainder of Biden’s presidency, for better or for worse.

Over recent months, tensions have reached a fever pitch on a number of issues, particularly Taiwan, China’s expanding nuclear arsenal, and the South China Sea. However, in contrast to the atmosphere of the first half of the year, this has been offset by a renewed urgency for greater dialogue and cooperation. Defense officials from both sides held talks for the first time in August, and followed this up with a second round in late September.

President Biden and Secretary Xi against a US/China flag background overlaid with a green circle
Photos by Territory of American Canada, Gage Skidmore, and Officia do Palácio do Planalto

Trade negotiations have also resumed, apparently in earnest, with U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai saying on Wednesday that she is getting “traction” with her Chinese counterparts despite their differences. Renewed engagement has also achieved some tangible, and for many observers surprising, wins: the two sides resolved a three-year diplomatic dispute involving Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou and two Canadian citizens detained in China, and also unveiled a joint declaration at the COP26 conference in Glasgow this week which promised enhanced near-term action on climate change.

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