The Reporter (Lansdale, PA)

Best tool for halting slide in U.S.-China relations is the phone

- David Ignatius David Ignatius Columnist

There are different ways of showing presidenti­al courage. One is getting on a train to visit Kyiv in the middle of the war there. Another is picking up the phone and calling Xi Jinping at a time of sharply deteriorat­ing U.S.-China relations.

Reaching out to the Chinese leader wouldn’t win President Biden popularity points at home, and it would give Republican­s a talking point they would undoubtedl­y exploit. But it’s the right thing to do regardless of the politics. And it embodies the mature global stewardshi­p that should be part of Biden’s brand as a leader.

I know the objections. Xi will treat Biden’s outreach as a concession and a sign of U.S. weakness. The United States won’t get meaningful benefits. Xi’s ruthlessly self-interested regime will pursue its goals even more aggressive­ly. And Europeans will think that they have a license to dicker with China, too.

So why should Biden signal that he wants to engage Xi now? The simple answer is that the relationsh­ip between Washington and Beijing is near its lowest point in modern times, prodded by hard-liners in both capitals who seem to believe confrontat­ion is inevitable.

Confrontat­ion might indeed lie ahead. But Biden was right last year to try to put a “floor” under this deteriorat­ing relationsh­ip. At the Bali summit in November, Xi and Biden both seemed ready to reduce tensions and improve strategic stability.

But the relationsh­ip has imploded since, because of bad Chinese policy, a bad U.S. response and just plain bad luck. The balloon overflight was an example of all three, and although it had little military or strategic importance, the fiasco collapsed the post-Bali diplomatic opening that would have sent Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing and might have set the ground for a Biden-Xi summit.

With public warnings to China and Blinken’s private attempt to re-engage, U.S. diplomacy was moving in two directions at once, and not surprising­ly, it went nowhere. Meanwhile, with growing GOP attacks on China, and “low confidence” but headline-making intelligen­ce suggesting that COVID-19 might have resulted from a lab leak, Washington has been experienci­ng a “perfect typhoon” that could swamp efforts at dialogue.

So the desired floor under the relationsh­ip has now all but collapsed. The current focus of tension involves the U.S. intelligen­ce reporting that China might supply Russia with ammunition to sustain its flagging war in Ukraine. U.S. officials believe that some leaders beneath Xi are wary of this doubling-down on Russia, seeing a stable relationsh­ip with the United States and its European allies as a better bet for China than backing a losing, escalation-prone Vladimir Putin. Officials tell me that China hasn’t sent the weapons yet; if it does, Biden will have to take sharp countermea­sures.

That’s why Biden should make that call to Beijing now — because we are on the lip of a significan­t further deteriorat­ion in U.S.-China relations. The audience would be China, and also the countries of the global south such as India, South Africa and Brazil that worry about increasing instabilit­y in a world where the United States seems obsessed with great-power conflict but unable to cap rising tensions.

It’s true that the Chinese calibrate U.S. strength. But appearing weak shouldn’t be such a worry for a United States whose military power dwarfs that of its rivals.

Biden should close his phone call by inviting Xi for a face-toface meeting. Such summits amid global tension are high-risk, highreward. Some of President Ronald Reagan’s advisers thought he was nuts to meet with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Iceland in 1986. But the meeting was a positive inflection point.

What should Biden propose as topics for a possible summit meeting with Xi? I’d suggest dialogue about artificial intelligen­ce and other world-altering emerging technologi­es and discussion of an agreement for a “green energy” transition to save the planet from catastroph­ic climate change.

Will Republican­s howl about any new opening with China? For sure. Would a Biden-Xi meeting produce any meaningful results? No one can say. Is it worth a try? Absolutely.

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