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Establishing the guard rails

Ronald Reagan first met Deng Xiaoping in Beijing in April 1984 – almost exactly 39 months after the former Hollywood star first became US president. There was a delay because Washington and Beijing had laboured for months over the details of the third and final Joint Communiqué (that has since served as a cornerstone of the China-US relationship).

Ever since that time every US president has met with the top Chinese leader during his first year in office, and vice versa. Diplomats from both sides have explained that such meetings play a crucial role, setting the stage for the leaders to get a personal feel for each other. It sets the tone for a bilateral relationship that has grown into the world’s most important and most complicated. The face-to-face rapport between the two leaders can be vital when things go awry.

President Xi Jinping has himself stuck to the tradition since taking power and even adopted a more American style early on in his tenure when he eschewed the highly conservative Chinese diplomatic protocols of prior summits for a greater informality. For instance in June 2013 the then newly installed Chinese president took off his tie and started talks with Barack Obama over a leisurely stroll in California’s Rancho Mirage. Four years later Xi travelled to the US again, this time spending some unscripted time at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida (where America’s least conventional president confided to Xi over the soup course that he’d just rained 50 missiles down on Syria).

However, an intenser focus on personal diplomacy vis-à-vis ‘the Donald’ – where Beijing lavished flattery on him and even granted his daughter a bunch of useful trademarks – didn’t work, as Trump slapped hefty tariffs on Chinese goods less than 12 months after hosting China’s first couple in his Florida mansion. The worsening ties between the countries then spilled over from the Republican administration to the Democrat one that was inaugurated this January. The diplomatic freeze – alongside Covid-19 travel restrictions – meant Xi found little time for summitry with his “old friend” (see WiC518) Joe Biden. A physical meeting between the duo has proven elusive in the 12 months since Biden’s election last November as US president. However, diplomats scraped together a ‘virtual’ meeting between their leaders this week. So, how – if at all – has the three-and-a-half hour video call changed relations between the world’s two biggest economies?


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