3rd April 2024 – (Washington) In a candid and consequential phone conversation on Tuesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden sought to navigate the turbulent currents of the world’s most critical bilateral relationship. While acknowledging the mounting negative factors, the two leaders reaffirmed their desire for stable US-China ties in a dialogue that could shape the trajectory in this consequential year.

The lengthy exchange, initiated at Washington’s request, underscored the high-stakes and interwoven nature of the rivalry-laced partnership between the globe’s preeminent powers. As the US presidential election cycle intensifies and Beijing-Washington frictions simmer on issues ranging from Taiwan to technology, the call represented a steadying force and injected a measure of predictability into a frequently volatile dynamic.

For Mr Biden, mired in adverse poll numbers and facing a formidable re-election battle against the China-bashing Donald Trump, preserving a veneer of stability with Beijing could offer a foreign policy bright spot. An outright conflagration with China would be a political mill-stone. For Mr Xi, deftly managing frictions with the US – while responding robustly to perceived transgressions – remains an overriding priority as he grapples with domestic economic headwinds.

In the readout from Beijing, Mr Xi hailed the “San Francisco vision” that emerged from his November summit with Mr Biden as having steadied ties over recent months. Yet he lamented that “negative factors” were mounting – a rare acknowledgement that US policies were exacerbating bilateral strains.

The Chinese leader outlined three overarching principles to underpin the relationship in 2024: valuing peace, prioritising stability, and upholding credibility through matching words with deeds. It was a pointed message that Beijing expects concrete actions to match Washington’s positive rhetoric.

Mr Xi’s metaphor about buttoning a shirt correctly – ensuring the strategic perception of the other side is right from the outset – captured his vision of managing US-China affairs through a systematic, rather than piecemeal, approach. While Washington remains fixated on compiling lists of grievances, Beijing is charting a steadier course even as profound schisms persist on issues like Taiwan and technology.

In a striking formulation, Chinese media highlighted Mr Xi’s warning that if the US “insists on suppressing China’s high-tech development and depriving China of its legitimate right to development, we will not sit idly by.” It reflected simmering anger over America’s step-up in technology export controls.

For his part, Mr Biden pushed back firmly, asserting the US would continue taking necessary actions to safeguard national security while denying any intent to unduly limit trade and investment. On Taiwan too, he reiterated that the US does not support independence but told Mr Xi bluntly that the thorny issue remains an “uncrossable red line” for China.

In the White House readout, as is customary, more attention was devoted to areas of disagreement – from trade and Taiwan to China’s stance on the Ukraine war. Yet it noted both leaders “welcomed ongoing efforts” to responsibly manage ties and maintain open channels through high-level diplomacy and working-level consultations.

For all their differences, however, the conversation signalled a desire to prevent the unravelling of a relationship which, while increasingly adversarial, retains a kernel of convergence on issues like climate change, global health and the fight against the fentanyl scourge. The US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Secretary of State Antony Blinken will soon head to China for follow-up talks.

The dynamics at play highlight how, despite the undeniable strains, both powers recognise the need to stabilise a partnership that remains integral to tackling existential challenges from climate change to nuclear proliferation. Neither can afford a descent into a second Cold War – a prospect Beijing and Washington officially disavow even as their rivalry hardens across multiple domains.

“There is clearly a recognition in both capitals that the relationship needs tending to – that inertia alone will lead to a further deterioration that serves neither side’s interests,” said Bonnie Glaser, Asia expert at the German Marshall Fund. “The question is whether the two sides have the collective wisdom to stabilise and potentially put a floor under the relationship.”

The timing of the call was conspicuous – coming just after the resolution of primary battles in both US parties but before a white-hot presidential race kicks into high gear. It reflected a hope on both sides that clearing some of the electoral smoke could allow a franker re-appraisal of the relationship’s fundamentals, temporarily insulated from domestic political pressures.

“Biden will try to use this brief window to outline an affirmative vision for US-China relations that could marginalise Trump’s overt belligerence on China,” said Evan Medeiros, former top White House Asia adviser who now heads the Eurasia Group’s Asian research. “He knows that a major China crisis, with all its global economic ramifications, could be fatal for his re-election hopes.”

Yet whether that narrow window of opportunity can be capitalised upon hangs over this latest exchange. Beijing harbours a deep well of distrust after enduring four years of Trump’s bluster, punitive tariffs and mounting hostility on issues like Xinjiang and Hong Kong. The Biden administration’s embrace of the Trump-era paradigm of viewing China as America’s pre-eminent strategic rival has exacerbated uncertainty about Washington’s motives even as Messrs Biden and Xi advocate a guardrail-laden approach to compete responsibly within certain bounds.

China’s latest white paper on U.S. relations, issued in February, offered a withering critique – accusing Washington of “a stratagem of simultaneously vieing for upholding hegemony while attempting to contain China.” It charged the U.S. with “constantly slandering China’s political system, human rights conditions, economic development model…and grossly interfering in China’s internal affairs.” From abandoning the Iran nuclear deal to weaponising technology exports, America’s policies amount to a deliberate effort at “all-round suppression of China,” leaving Beijing “with no other choice but to strike back resolutely.”

While China’s coarse denunciations are partly for domestic messaging, such strident language underscores the depth of mistrust coursing through the relationship. That backdrop informs the caution in Beijing’s diplomatic pronouncements, even at points of nominal consensus like climate change cooperation.

“It bears emphasising that while China is ready to work with the U.S. on climate change cooperation…any effort to bring China-U.S. ties on a healthy and stable trajectory must be guided by mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation,” Zhou Xiaoming, a former deputy representative for climate change affairs, wrote in China’s official People’s Daily newspaper after the Biden-Xi call.

For the U.S., the calculus is further complicated by Congress where anti-China hawks have already blocked the Biden administration from expanding avenues of Sino-U.S. technological engagement. Amid the presidential primaries, all candidates – Republicans and Democrats – feel compelled to flaunt their hardline China credentials. The incentive structure within America’s electoral system militates against bold course-corrections in its increasingly hawkish China policy.

“There’s a realpolitik at play on Beijing’s side – a recognition that a steady diet of positive signalling alone from Washington does little to remove the underlying mistrust,” said Bonny Lin, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The proof will be in the policy pudding, and so far the Biden administration has stuck to a script of broad continuity with Trump’s China policy both rhetorically and practically.”

Yet as Ms Glaser noted, even seemingly modest positive engagements can help reduce risks by re-establishing habits of consultation and low-key cooperation in areas where interests converge.

“In the bigger picture, these meetings will likely only stem the negative momentum towards deeper rivalry and loss of guardrails, not reverse it,” said Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. But “steps in that direction are essential and preferable to a directionless drift towards an unintended conflict.”

This sober assessment encapsulates the fundamental challenge confronting Messrs Biden and Xi – crisis management in an era where cooperation, while imperative, proves increasingly elusive. In navigating these treacherous waters where high-blown rhetoric routinely trumps substantive breakthroughs, stabilising the exercise – rather than scoring decisive wins – constitutes the more plausible metric of success.

History will render a harsh verdict if the world’s two great powers, armed with the hindsight of the Cold War’s corrosive costs on both sides, fail to heed the lessons and thoughtfully manage a 21st-century rivalry more economically, technologically and militarily intertwined than its 20th century predecessor. Tuesday’s call kept hopes of doing so flickering, however faintly.