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Why the U.S.-China summit could help Biden in 2024

The last thing the president needs is a crisis in Asia. 

The war in Ukraine continues unabated. Thousands are dead in Israel and Gaza. Millions of Afghans face deportation from Pakistan, and civil war in Sudan is leading to horrific civilian casualties.

So with that list of calamities, it’s important to note when a positive story emerges — and it happened this week in San Francisco when President Joe Biden sat down with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Expectations for the summit were modest, and Biden and Xi met but did not surpass them. But after months of seemingly unrelenting ill will between the two most powerful countries in the world, Biden and Xi’s meeting put U.S.-China relations on a positive track for the first time in more than a year. That is an unqualified good thing and reason for cautious optimism.

Of perhaps greatest importance, the two sides announced the resumption of military-to-military communication channels.

Until recently, relations between Washington and Beijing had been on a downward spiral for a while. A visit to Taiwan by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2022 enraged Beijing. Then, in January, China was caught flying a surveillance balloon over the continental United States — and all hell broke loose.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a diplomatic visit to China. Random weather and recreational balloons were getting shot out of the air all over the United States, and the rhetoric from Capitol Hill, which has featured near-constant China bashing since Biden took office, only got worse.

It set up a cycle of recrimination between the two countries, with Chinese-run media slamming the U.S. and American lawmakers, who raised red flags over everything from China’s aggressive behavior toward Taiwan to continued allegations of a Chinese government cover-up on the origins of Covid-19 to concern over Chinese ownership of the social media site TikTok.

The Biden-Xi summit didn’t solve all these issues, but at the very least, it arrested the slide. Of perhaps greatest importance, the two sides announced the resumption of military-to-military communication channels, which China had cut off after Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Re-establishing these connections between senior commanders will make it easier to avoid miscommunication and minimize the potential for conflict. It won’t solve the clear mistrust between the nations’ two militaries, but anything that limits the potential for conflict between two military rivals merits applause.

Biden also secured agreement from the Chinese leader to impose more stringent controls over the export of precursor chemicals for producing fentanyl, which is responsible for 70% of overdose deaths in the United States.

For Biden, a cordial meeting with Xi also furthers his near-term electoral ambitions.

China has pledged in the past to impose controls on fentanyl shipments but has failed to follow through. After Pelosi’s Taiwan trip, Beijing temporarily ended its cooperation on counternarcotics issues. If this agreement leads to a real crackdown, it could save countless lives in the United States and give Biden a political boost before the next election — but the jury is still out on whether China is serious about cooperation.

To be sure, China did not walk away from San Francisco empty-handed. Xi’s meeting with Biden preceded a sit-down with more than 300 U.S. business executives. With China’s economy battling headwinds and a sharp decline in foreign investment, the latter meeting may be even more crucial for Xi, who desperately needs to keep his country’s economy humming to prevent potential domestic unrest.

For Biden, a cordial meeting with Xi also furthers his near-term electoral ambitions. With wars raging in Ukraine and the Middle East, the last thing Biden needs is a crisis in the Far East with China.  While it’s unlikely that Republicans will back off on attacking China to score points with voters, this week’s summit is a positive sign that the president will not follow their lead. It’s one of the benefits of having an actual adult in the White House.

Still, for all the positive news out of the Biden-Xi summit, we shouldn’t get too ahead of ourselves. China and the United States remain rivals, and that is unlikely to change. Issues like Taiwan, which has a presidential election in January, the South China Sea, trade and economic competition are not easily reconcilable — and will remain flashpoints in Washington and Beijing for the foreseeable future.

“We’re in a competitive relationship, China and the United States,” Biden said at a news conference. “But my responsibility is to make this rational and manageable so it doesn’t result in conflict. That’s what I’m all about. That’s what this is about. To find a place where we can come together and find mutual interests.”

Competition between the U.S. and China is likely inevitable, and as China becomes more economically and militarily powerful — and threatens U.S. global and regional hegemony — the potential for confrontation and even conflict will only increase.

That’s why it’s all the more important that the leaders of both countries can sit down, get to know each other, and talk. In meeting that low but important bar, Biden and Xi cooled simmering tensions between their two countries and likely, for the near term, reduced the potential for conflict. It may not be the most exciting diplomatic breakthrough, but it’s reason for modest celebration. After all, talking is better than fighting.