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Decoding China: Why Beijing and Washington need each other

Dang Yuan
November 17, 2023

Chinese media are euphoric after Xi Jinping's trip to San Francisco for a summit with Joe Biden. The two leaders were friendly, but deep fractures still lurk beneath the surface.

Joe Biden escorts Xi Jinping to his car to bid farewell after their talks in the Filoli Estate in California, November 15, 2023
US President Biden said talks with Xi made 'real progress'Image: Li Xueren/Xinhua/picture alliance

"This is a beautiful vehicle," US President Joe Biden commented while saying goodbye to his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping this week in front of the Filoli Estate, outside San Francisco.

The two leaders had met face-to-face for the first time in more than a year, for the occasion of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.

"It's made in China — a Hongqi," Xi replied, standing next to his V12-powered, bulletproof limo. "Open the door, have a look!"

Biden did so, and then pointed at his own presidential limo — "It's like that Cadilac we have over there. They call it 'The Beast.'"

"The Beast" follows Biden everywhere in the world, as it has followed several US presidents before him. It's the same with Xi and his presidential limo — he takes two Hongqi cars with him, although he only started using them for diplomatic trips a year ago. This is the first time the Chinese-made presidential limos were driving on an American street.

The symbolic meaning of this episode is clear for both Xi and the Chinese public — it shows how Beijing's growing self-confidence can be felt, seen and even touched. The United States and China see each other as both partners and rivals. During the visit, Xi even described the US as a "friend."

"It was as if Xi was giving a philosophical lecture on the relationship between two great powers during the talks in San Francisco," said Xuewu Gu, a professor of politics at the University of Bonn in Germany.

In the end, both Xi and Biden understood that the only way forward is to close ranks, according to Gu.

Two 'helmsmen of bilateral relations'

It would not be possible for China and the US to stop cooperating altogether, Xi said in San Francisco. At the same time, it would be unrealistic for one side to try to change the other.

"We are both helmsmen of bilateral relations," Xi told Biden, pointing to the responsibility toward "the citizens, the international community, and our time."

'Real progress' in US-China talks between Biden, Xi

And China craves more. Beijing wants to mold the 21st century according to its own designs. However, there was no "new world order" forged during this meeting, said Saskia Hieber, an expert in international politics with a focus on the Asia-Pacific region at the Academy for Political Education in Tutzing, Germany.

"Unlike traditional superpowers, under Xi Jinping's leadership... China will continue to refuse support for structures, institutions and rules which have been shaped by the West," she told DW.

At the same time, however, "China will not be able to reshape the world on its own, not even jointly with Russia. The Western world has enough experience, values and success, and will not be replaced," she added.

China has managed to gain influence in some parts of the world by using its Belt and Road Initiative, said Sebastian Harnisch, a political scientist at the University of Heidelberg. This influence, he told DW, is particularly noticeable in Central Asia, Africa and parts of Latin America. However, "structural foundations" for China's leadership "must be questioned in the medium and long term," he added.

Xi praised by state media

China's microblogging platform Weibo has promoted "Xi Jinping's trip to San Francisco" as well as a screenshot of an X (formerly Twitter) post by government spokeswoman Hua Chunying from San Francisco.

The post tells a story of Biden showing Xi a picture of the Chinese leader from the 1980s — a photo of young Xi Jinping standing in front of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco during his first-ever trip to America.

"Do you know this young man?" Biden apparently asked. "You haven't changed a bit."

The US-based platform is blocked in China, but that apparently doesn't apply to Hua's post.

The Chinese media is euphoric. And even ordinary people seem to understand that a good relationship with a global rival is key to solving global problems. The problems themselves — the US arming Taiwan, which Beijing considers to be a Chinese province, or the sanctions imposed on the tech giant Huawei and semiconductor exports — were swept under the rug. Xi's US visit has to be seen as a success.

Communication is crucial

"The fact that the channels of communication have reopened is a success in itself," said Abigael Vasselier, an expert on China's foreign policy at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin. This was also underlined by Biden, who said that he and Xi "agreed that each one of us can pick up the phone call directly and we'll be heard immediately."

The San Francisco summit will also be seen as a signal to the US allies to start normalizing their own ties with China. And the apparent thaw has already seen a global impact — the US and China have pledged closer cooperation in the fight against climate change.

The world's two largest CO2 emitters reaffirmed their commitment to the 2015 Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to the pre-industrial era. Beijing and Washington also want to make the upcoming COP28 summit in Dubai "a success."

How much of the pledges are just talk, and how much of it will result in tangible change? Will Xi equip his Hongqi limos with a hybrid, gas-electric engine? That remains, like so many other things in China, a state secret.

US-China tech rivalry: Semiconductors and geopolitics

"Decoding China" is a DW series that examines Chinese positions and arguments on current international issues from a critical German and European perspective.

This article was translated from German.