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Washington Wednesday: Unclear signals

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WORLD Radio - Washington Wednesday: Unclear signals

President Biden and Chinese leader Xi have a cordial conversation but walk away without many concrete achievements from last week’s summit


Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders' week in Woodside, California Getty Images/Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 22nd of November, 2023.

Thank you for listening to WORLD Radio. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

First up on The World and Everything in It: leaders in Beijing are signaling they want to patch up their rocky relationship with Washington. But do they really?

In recent years, China has been rapidly building up its military with an eye toward rivaling the might of the U.S. Armed Forces while stealing sensitive information from the U.S. government and intellectual property from American businesses at an alarming rate.

REICHARD: And the relationship between the world’s two top powers has descended into what some have called a new Cold War.

But last week, President Biden met face-to-face with Chinese leader Xi Jinping at a conference in California.

BIDEN: We have to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict and we also have to manage it responsibly, that competition.

EICHER: In response, President Xi said the world is big enough for both the U.S. and China to succeed.

He even offered panda bears as what he called envoys of friendship.

But how much stock should we put in China’s stated goal to tamp down tensions and smooth things over with the U.S.?

REICHARD: It’s Washington Wednesday, and joining us now is Dean Cheng. He’s an expert on China and previously studied China's defense-industrial complex for the U.S. government. He’s currently senior adviser to the China program at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Dean, good morning!

DEAN CHENG, GUEST: Good morning.

REICHARD: President Biden says he thinks he made real progress in his meeting with Xi Jinping. What do you think he meant about that?

CHENG: I think he meant that there's going to be panda bears at U.S. zoos. Frankly, beyond that, it's not at all clear what exactly has been achieved. One of the things that people have noted is that the Chinese have agreed to restart military-to-military contact. One, it's notable that the Chinese were the ones who also shut down military-to-military contacts. And two, those same contacts really do not serve the purpose that U.S.-Soviet military contacts did during the Cold War. Or as one analyst has observed, when the Chinese hotlines typically stay cold, they don't tend to pick up the phone in the middle of a crisis. So what exactly is supposed to be achieved with these mil-to-mil contacts is unclear.

REICHARD: Is this a charm offensive or something else?

CHENG: I think that since the summit occurred on the sidelines of the APEC summit, this was an opportunity for Beijing to say several things. One, we're open to discussion, even if those discussions lead nowhere. But two, the very oft-quoted, “the world is big enough for both of us,” elevates China to the equivalent of the United States. That really isn’t all that surprising. But again, in the context of APEC, that is a signal to all the other Asian countries: “Understand we're here in Asia, America is across the Pacific. If we're equals, but they're farther away, who do you think you should pay more attention to?”

REICHARD: What are the biggest points of contention and problems with this relationship between the United States and China? You mentioned shutting down points of contact. What else?

CHENG: Well, unfortunately, we only have, I think, about 10 minutes here in this program, otherwise, this is a very, very long list. We have fundamental issues of economics. China's economy is increasingly closed. China engages in intellectual property theft, both through cyber means and other means. China engages in unfair trade practices. China's military is modernizing, which is reasonable for the second largest GDP in the world, but it is using that military to intimidate its neighbors as we see regularly in the South China Sea between China and the Philippines. We see China supporting Russia and its invasion of Ukraine. We see China not doing anything about North Korea's nuclear development program. The list goes on and on.

REICHARD: What do you think is realistically possible then, in terms of actually improving this relationship and not just talking nice for the cameras?

CHENG: Robert Kennedy once said that it was important for the United States to make clear that we are just friends and brave enemies. And I think that sending a clear signal to Beijing that we are prepared to partner with them where our interests overlap and where there will be equitable and fair interactions. But if they are going to try to intimidate our friends and allies, or behave in ways that fundamentally violate the international order, then we will oppose them. We will oppose them economically, we will oppose them diplomatically and if necessary, we will oppose them militarily. I don't know that that message necessarily got through in this particular meeting.

REICHARD: What do you think China and the U.S. need from each other, and do you think they're on track to continue that interdependence? Or are they going to pull apart and create more distance?

CHENG: Clearly the two economies are intertwined, although there are signs that on both sides that they are unwinding the two sides. With the Chinese, they have something called dual circulation, they want to create an internal Chinese market that is walled off and protected, that basically feeds its own supply chains. But they want to participate in the global supply chain. So essentially what they want is the rest of the world stays out of China's supply chain, but China is part of the global supply chain. That's not a particularly equitable approach.

For the U.S., what do we want from China? We want cheap consumer goods. We want them to produce environmentally damaging products in China that they will then export to United States at low prices. Again, is that particularly fair if you're the Chinese, at some point they're probably going to start wondering if even that's a very fair trade.

Both of us want peace. Neither side wants war. I want to emphasize that. But the conditions on that from the Chinese perspective are and therefore you, the U.S., should stop selling arms to Taiwan and to basically leave Asia to China. From our perspective, that means that China doesn't invade Taiwan, and China has refused to guarantee that they won't do that. And we want them to participate in an international order that frowns on things like a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

REICHARD: A couple of more questions. For now, China has a lot of problems with this economy and demographics at home. Can you give us a brief snapshot of the challenges that China is up against right now?

CHENG: So the Chinese economy is slowing down for a variety of reasons. Some of it had to do with COVID and the disruption of China's place in global supply chains. Once you find somebody else to supply you with things, and in the case of China, it was often low-end commodities, China lost market share that it is going to find very hard to regain. Another piece of this is that Xi Jinping and his predecessor Hu Jintao pretty much ended Chinese economic reform. The heyday of Chinese economic liberalization was the 1990s and very early 2000s. What we see instead is a steady accretion of power back to the state. Economic decisions are increasingly centralized, not to the point of a planned economy, but certainly to the point where innovation, private enterprise, things like that, are frowned upon. This is exacerbated by the reality that China's demographics are terrible. It is running out of young people. Now, “running out" is a relative term, we're still talking about 10s of millions of young people joining the workforce every year. But the days of when China had a skilled, educated, cheap workforce are coming to an end. They will still have a significant workforce, it will be educated, it will be literate, but there will be fewer of them. And that price advantage that that gave China is going to decrease. When you throw in rising energy prices around the world, the idea that you would have a production process, that might involve four or five different import-exports of components being added on to a final product, which is where China really sort of helped make money for companies, that is very much endangered. And so whether or not the global supply network that we have become accustomed to over the last 20 plus years will stay in place is very much open to question. China is going to be on the losing, potentially on the losing end of that.

REICHARD: Final question: is there anything missing from the conversation about the U.S. and China that you think needs more attention?

CHENG: Well, one of the things that the administration heralded from out of the summit was cooperation on the environment. President Biden has said repeatedly the single biggest threat is not Hamas, it's not even the Russian invasion of Ukraine. To his mind, the single biggest threat is global climate change. China remains the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, and it's getting worse. While the rest of the world has been cutting back on coal-fired power plants, China has been expanding its coal-fired power plant construction, which means that we'll be relying on them for 20 or 30 years into the future. This becomes an issue because the question is what have we been willing to offer China for their “cooperation” on climate change? And what does it mean when China says, “okay, yes, we will cooperate with you. Give us 30 years.” And what does that mean in the meantime for us, if we are expected to start shifting away from fossil fuels, etc. now?

REICHARD: Dean Cheng is senior advisor to the China program at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Dean, thanks so much!

CHENG: Thank you for having me.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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