US-China ties: Xi-Biden summit would show talking is ‘not weakness’, former envoy for East Asia Susan Thornton says

Beijing’s official statement on Newsom’s meeting with Xi on Wednesday, during a week-long visit to China, did not mention the invitation.

us china ties xi biden summit would show talking is not weakness former envoy for east asia susan thornton says 1
Susan Thornton, pictured in 2017 during her tenure as US acting assistant secretary of state East Asian and Pacific affairs. Photo: Xinhua

While Beijing has yet to confirm whether Xi will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ forum, there have been increasing official contacts in recent months between the US and China, raising hopes of a Xi-Biden summit.

China’s top diplomat Wang Yi is due to arrive in Washington for three days on Thursday, potentially to firm up the details of the long-awaited meeting.

His trip follows high-level visits to China by delegations from the Biden administration and a bipartisan US Senate group.

Thornton, a former US acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said the Apec forum was likely to be the last time in Biden’s current term that he could meet with Xi, given the run-up to the 2024 US presidential election.

She noted that people were “quite realistic” about their expectations for the potential summit.

“The two presidents meeting is really the most solid kind of constraint or guardrail that we have on the relationship at the moment,” she said.

“The fact of the meeting is, of course, important. The two presidents talking and heightening their mutual understanding of how they see things is also very important.”

Hopes high for Xi-Biden summit as recent US-China diplomatic efforts bear fruit

Thornton said she perceived a steadying upwards trend in the relationship following conversations with officials and scholars during her visit to China.

Along with other US experts, including the State Department’s former top China policy official Rick Waters, Thornton met Yang Tao, the Chinese foreign ministry’s head of North American and Oceanian affairs last Monday.

According to the ministry, they exchanged views on the Sino-US relationship, cooperation in various fields, Ukraine and the Middle East issues.

Thornton pushed back against criticism that the recent US-China meetings were merely “a talk shop”. “That is totally incorrect.”

us china ties xi biden summit would show talking is not weakness former envoy for east asia susan thornton says


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According to Thornton, the Covid-19 pandemic did “way more damage to US-China relations than anything else” and the two countries are en route to re-establishing a communication rhythm after the years-long gap.

She hoped that a Biden-Xi summit would send a strong signal to the global public “that the US and China can talk, can manage relations and have a lot to do together and talk about together, and that we shouldn’t be afraid to talk to one another”.

“Meeting is not a concession, it doesn’t show weakness,” she added.

Thornton said she expected the meeting to also reassure people that travelling between the two countries is “normal, acceptable, welcome and safe”, to help get students, especially from the US to China, flowing again.

Leading Chinese academic and cultural figures urge Sino-US ‘friendship’

She also highlighted the importance of the two presidents showing that they endorse the working groups the two countries had set up in the recent months and “want them to work constructively”.

The Economic Working Group (EWG), launched last month after US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s trip to Beijing in July, held its first meeting earlier this week, which Washington characterised as “productive” and Beijing called “constructive”.

A Xi-Biden summit would come at a time of escalated conflicts in Gaza and Israel in addition to the ongoing war in Ukraine. As Beijing rolled out the red carpet for world leaders attending its belt and road forum, Biden flew to Tel Aviv last week for direct presidential-level diplomacy.

us china ties xi biden summit would show talking is not weakness former envoy for east asia susan thornton says 2


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“It’s going to be a long time before we see China raising its hand to do something similar, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t work together,” Thornton said.

“It would be very important for President Biden and President Xi to talk about Israel-Palestine to see if there’s anything we can do,” she said, adding that the US and China also have “a lot of commonalities” in their positions.

The potential meeting between Biden and Xi would also be only two months ahead of the presidential election in Taiwan, an island that has become one of the thorniest issues in the growing discords between Washington and Beijing.

China-US conflict should ‘never be allowed’, Beijing ambassador to US says

Thornton said she expected the US would try to give some assurances to maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.

She also expressed hopes that China and the US could make progress on the fentanyl issue.

“That would actually go a long, long way toward moving relations to a more trust-based state of play and also show American people that these meetings with China … can produce real outcomes,” she said.

South China Morning Post

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