23rd November 2023 – (Beijing) The long-awaited summit between Presidents Biden and Xi this November marked a tentative yet welcome easing of tensions. After years of accelerating strategic rivalry, the three-hour discussion finally hit the brakes. Both leaders voiced a shared desire to manage differences and prevent outright conflict. This summit’s call for cooperation over confrontation merits applause. However, scepticism remains that America will sustain this pragmatic tone as elections loom.

The summit’s deliverables were modest but meaningful. Both sides agreed to resume stalled climate talks and military communications. Biden pushed back firmly on Taiwan while opposing outright conflict. For his part, Xi described the bilateral relationship as failing to meet global expectations for cooperation. This highlighted the necessity of steady diplomacy between the powers.

Subsequent gestures built goodwill, including expanded airline services and revived trade dialogue. Markets rallied on reduced uncertainty. The summit set a constructive tone by articulating mutual interest in preventing deterioration. This suggests a baseline understanding that unrestrained antagonism serves neither nation’s goals. America appears open to calibrated competition, not unbounded rivalry.

Yet just days after the summit, mixed signals persist from Washington. Visiting Kyiv this week, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin warned that if Russia succeeds in Ukraine, China could be emboldened to use force to expand its territory. Meanwhile, the U.S. and the Philippines began joint maritime and aerial patrols in the South China Sea, further militarising disputes there. Such disjointed posturing risks quickly eroding the summit’s goodwill. It highlights the lack of coordination hampering America’s China policy as the Pentagon appears intent on sustaining tensions. This inconsistency continues undermining bilateral relations absent a unified strategic vision.

This whiplash tendency has played out before. After previous bilateral summits under President Obama and Trump, America’s posture rapidly reverted from conciliation back to hostility. A fundamental bipartisan consensus continues portraying China as an ideological menace. Wide policy differences exist in properly engaging Beijing. This renders the relationship prone to regular shocks as power changes hands domestically. The distrust sown by years of zero-sum rhetoric cannot disappear overnight. And America’s next election cycle will likely revive inflammatory debates over “countering China.” The country’s conduct remains hostage to internal politicking.

Moreover, mixed messaging from Washington breeds confusion. Congress curtails Chinese investment, yet businesses crave market access. The White House welcomes climate cooperation while the Pentagon expands regional exercises. Lawmakers ban Chinese firms as malign actors, even as billion-dollar sports leagues court Chinese sponsorship deals. This dissonance saps the coherence of America’s China posture.

Ongoing friction also arises from our divergent systems and values. Yet coexistence has long relied on respecting differences, not demanding conformity. American exceptionalism must evolve to acknowledge China’s alternative modernization path, not denigrate it reflexively. Moral arrogance will only engender reciprocal disdain and obstruct compromises. A prosperous Chinese populace hardly yearns for U.S.-ordered liberation.

Critically, America must ground its outlook in nuance, not tropes. Reducing Chinese people to robotic drones marching in lockstep is as counterproductive as typecasting all Americans as myopic jingoists. Seeing the humanity in the other prevents monolithic misperceptions. And principled competition need not breed malice between our peoples.

This nuance should infuse America’s foreign policy bureaucracy. Career diplomats play crucial roles in translating summits into functional cooperation. They require consistent guidance to execute stable diplomacy. But mixed signals from Washington make their jobs untenably difficult.

Ultimately, bilateral ties hinge on U.S. reliability. The past decade provided scant evidence America can sustain cooperative aims absent crises. We lurch between moralistic derision and transactional schmoozing absent a balanced strategic vision. But coherence cannot emerge when China policy is hostage to election cycles.

Perhaps this latest reset will break that pattern. Biden’s six decades steeped in foreign policy suggest he grasps the virtues of engagement. With crisis-concentrating minds, serious diplomacy appears possible before politics upends it. There lies hope this détente can mature into active problem-solving.

But China cannot keep playing Charlie Brown to America’s Lucy, forever trusting the ball will not be whisked away at the last second. Words require follow-through. A foundation exists now for functional interaction across flashpoints from economics to climate to security. The opportunity must not give way again to bombastic domestic point-scoring.

True stability demands America recognise its own conduct poses the greatest risk to relations. Unilateral confrontation begets predictable countermeasures, not Chinese capitulation. A richer bilateral vision should prioritize global gains over zero-sum squabbling. And sustainable engagement will rely on U.S. consistency as much as Chinese cooperation.

Neither country can fully eclipse the other anytime soon. But both stand to lose enormously from unrestrained antagonism. This truth merits rediscovery after years of jingoistic myopia. If the summit’s goodwill can transcend partisan rancour, a modus vivendi remains possible. But the ball sits squarely in Washington’s court to sustain momentum absent petty provocations. Let us hope wisdom prevails over pandering to preserve peace.