Foreign policy issues seldom win an incumbent US President an election. But they can certainly lose them one, or at the very least feature heavily.
On 15 November President Joe Biden met President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit seeking to maintain diplomatic dialogue and prevent further deterioration of the relationship with China – whilst demonstrating his resolve to domestic audiences. It is a perilous balancing act.
It is almost exactly a year since the presidents last met at the G20 in Indonesia, after China had suspended cooperation in retaliation for Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Relations were further derailed due to an incident with a Chinese spy balloon transiting the US earlier this year. Several visits to China by US officials were required to get diplomatic engagement back on track.
Although the relationship has shown signs of stabilizing in recent months, the Biden administration went out of its way to tone down expectations of the meeting ahead of time. Outcomes appear minimal and a joint statement was not politically possible considering there is no agreement on key matters including Taiwan, the South China Sea, and US semiconductor policy.
But the stakes are high for President Biden: undertaking such high-profile engagement with President Xi is risky, when his opponents obviously see advantage in attacking his administration as ‘soft on China’.
The Biden administration has so far benefited from a bipartisan consensus in the implementation of its China policy, but Republicans in Congress have grown increasingly critical.
With the election year approaching, the policy debate will intensify even further. Being ‘tough on China’ has become a requirement for presidential candidates to position themselves as strong, pro-American leaders.
In the leadup to the Xi-Biden meeting, Republicans on the House of Representatives bipartisan select committee on China released a letter criticizing the Biden administration’s push for bilateral engagement as making ‘repeated concessions’ with an ‘unacceptable cost to “competitive” or defensive actions.’ Trump has also attacked Biden as being ‘pro-China’.
Even within the Republican party, China policy is an electoral tool. Presidential candidates Nikki Hailey and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis went head-to-head in last week’s debate, accusing each other of taking a weak stance on the country.
The US Election Agenda
Against this background it is uncertain how Biden’s meeting with Xi will play out. In the US, voter concern about the threat posed by China has spiked in recent years.
A majority of US adults are concerned about bilateral tensions and consider China a threat to the vital interests of the US. 50 per cent name China as the country representing the greatest threat to the US, but Republicans and Republican-leaning voters are more likely to do so, with 63 per cent of Republicans naming China to 40 per cent of Democrats.
And although topics discussed in the meeting, including military-to-military communications, a pledge to resume climate cooperation, and talks about the technology race are critical in managing the US–China relationship, domestic issues such as the economy, immigration, abortion rights and crime top the agenda in the election year.
Biden’s China policy and his meeting with Xi will therefore affect his domestic support mainly in terms of how it relates to these domestic concerns. Fentanyl is one policy area where the two definitely overlap, and Biden could claim a small achievement from his meeting.
Agreement on fentanyl
High on the agenda of the 15 November meeting was the announcement of an agreement to stem China’s export of products related to the production of fentanyl, the addictive synthetic opioid that is a leading cause of drug overdoses in the US. A third of deaths among Americans aged 25-34 are caused by the drug.
The Trump administration had already reached a deal on fentanyl with China in 2018 but subsequently accused Xi of failing to live up to his promises.
Whether Biden succeeds in reducing the flow of fentanyl across the Mexican border into the US will significantly impact domestic perceptions of his engagement with China.
If he were successful, it could also strengthen his position in the divisive debate on how to manage the US southern border: Republicans are attacking the president as being weak on immigration.
However, even a successful agreement on fentanyl might not be enough to convince US voters that Biden’s framework to define and manage competition with China is the right way forward.
A vital argument to make to the American people
At a time of rising tensions and diminished diplomacy, the risk of a US–China confrontation spurred by misunderstanding, miscalculation, and misinterpreting each other’s motivations is especially high.
Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy, especially its investment in regional partnerships such as the Quad and AUKUS, have increased China’s concerns about US intentions – as have heightened US military capabilities in the region and the recent US diplomacy designed to forge a stronger trilateral link between the US, Japan, and South Korea. The consequences of a confrontation would have catastrophic effects for US voters and the global economy.
Diplomacy plays an essential role in managing tensions, and meetings such as that with Xi are part of Biden’s strategy to minimize the prospect for an accidental escalation of tensions and create a basis for cooperation on issues such as climate change.
The rare press conference Biden held immediately afterwards, in which he spoke of conducting the talks in ‘the interests of the American people’, was part of his effort to convince Americans of the essential utility of such talks.