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US-China Relations in the Biden Era: A Timeline

On January 20, 2021, Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States, offering a chance to change the course of US-China relations, which had hit a low point under the outgoing Trump administration.

The four years witnessed escalating trade tensions culminating in a trade war and sanctions on Chinese technology companies.

Since Biden’s election, political and business stakeholders have been paying close attention to the direction of the new White House administration’s policy toward China.

Will the Biden administration be accommodating of China or take advantage of the new status quo established under his predecessor?

China Briefing previously monitored and documented major developments during the US-China trade war in the Trump era.

Here, we present a fresh timeline that will track key developments affecting bilateral ties between the world’s two largest economies under the Biden administration.

US-China relations in the Biden era

Day 1030 (November 15, 2023): Xi and Biden Meet in San Francisco, Agree to Further Cooperation in Key Areas.

On November 15, 2023, Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden held their first face-to-face meeting in a year at the Filoli Estate in San Francisco. This is only the second time the two leaders have met during Biden’s term as president, although the two have previously met several times in other official capacities.

In remarks given ahead of the four-hour meeting, held on the sidelines of the APEC Summit, both leaders emphasized the importance of the bilateral relationship, with Xi calling it “the most important bilateral relationship in the world”.

According to Biden, the meeting was “among the most constructive and productive we’ve had”, and resulted in the establishment of several areas of cooperation, including artificial intelligence governance, counternarcotics, and defense, as well as commitments to improving transport links and expanding educational and cultural exchanges between the two countries.

For a full summary of the meeting, see our article: Xi-Biden Meeting: “Productive” Talks Lead to Increased Cooperation in Key Areas.

Day 1029 (November 14, 2023): US and China Reach Several Agreements on Climate Cooperation Following Meeting Between Envoys.

The US and China have agreed to ramp up cooperation on climate action, following meetings last week between climate envoys Xie Zhenhua and John Kerry in California.

A joint statement released by the Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) and the US Department of State, respectively, outlines 25 points of agreement on jointly tackling the climate crisis. These include joint commitments to implement the Paris Agreement, triple renewable energy capacity globally by 2030, implement respective national methane action plans, implement technologies and measures to control greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and air pollutants, and support climate cooperation between states, provinces, and cities in each country.

The statement also agreed on the intended contents of the decision on the first Global Stocktake, which will take place at COP28 at the end of November in Dubai. The Global Stocktake is a quinquennial assessment of the progress made on climate change action since the 2015 Paris Agreement.

The two sides stated that the decision should:

  • “Reflect that there has been substantial positive progress toward achieving the objectives of the Paris Agreement”;

  • “Reflect that substantially more ambition and implementation on action and support will be needed to achieve the Paris Agreement’s goals”;

  • “Send signals with respect to the energy transition (renewable energy, coal/oil/gas), carbon sinks including forests, non-CO2 gases [sic] including methane, and low-carbon technologies”’; and

  • “Note the expectation of the developed countries that the $100b goal will be met in 2023, reaffirm the urging of developed country Parties to at least double their provision of adaptation finance”, among other matters.

Finally, the two countries agreed to initiate or restart several cooperation platforms, including:

  • Operationalizing the Working Group on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s;

  • Recommencing bilateral dialogues on energy policies and strategies, carrying out exchanges on mutually agreed topics, and facilitating track II activities to enhance pragmatic cooperation; and

  • Initiating a technical working group cooperation on policy dialogue, technical solutions exchanges, and capacity building on methane reduction.

The progress in improving US-China dialogue on climate change signals that the two countries have found common ground for cooperation and is a significant reversal of previous trends. US-China talks on climate change were suspended in August 2022, following Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taipei.

The agreement comes ahead of the planned meeting between President Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden in San Francisco on Wednesday, November 15.

Day 1025 (November 10, 2023): Chinese Vice Premier He Lifeng Meets with US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen Ahead of Xi-Biden Meeting.

The bilateral meetings, which took place in San Francisco before the start of the APEC Summit, covered a broad range of issues, including bilateral engagement on climate change, debt restructuring, promoting global financial stability, national security, and outbound investment.

The two sides struck a conciliatory tone and reached a consensus to improve cooperation on a number of issues, while acknowledging areas of disagreement.

In a press briefing held at the close of the meetings, the secretary emphasized that the US aims to achieve “a healthy economic relationship that benefits both our countries over time” and that it does “not seek to decouple [its] economy from China’s”.

This sentiment was echoed in the readout from the Chinese side, which stated that China and the US “do not seek economic ‘decoupling’ and welcome the development of healthy economic relations to provide a level playing field for enterprises and workers of the two countries and enhance the well-being of the two peoples”.

Per the official statements, the two officials laid out “specific areas of the bilateral economic relationship where we agree”, reaching important concessions in the following areas:

  • Strengthening communication, seeking consensus, managing differences, and avoiding misunderstandings and accidental escalation of friction; this will include continuing a regular cadence of contact between Secretary Yellen and Vice Premier He.

  • Working together to address common challenges, including economic growth, financial stability, and regulation.

  • Cooperating on climate change-related economic issues and debt issues in low-income and emerging economies.

  • Strengthening the international financial architecture, (including strengthening the IMF with the Executive Board’s approval of an equiproportional quota increase, bolstering the IMF’s ability to fight crises), and accelerating the adoption of reforms in multilateral development banks to make them better, larger, and more effective.

  • Welcoming the objective of a healthy economic relationship that provides a level playing field for companies and workers in both countries and benefits the two peoples.

Yellen and He previously met in July 2023 during the former’s trip to Beijing, in which the two agreed to maintain high-level exchanges and communications on economic issues in particular. These meetings resulted in the establishment of the Economic and Financial Working Groups in September, which convened “for the first time in recent weeks and had their second meetings yesterday” (November 9), according to Yellen.

The meetings between He and Yellen are an important stepping stone to the much-anticipated meeting between President Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden on Wednesday, November 15, during the APEC Summit in San Francisco.

Day 1025 (November 10, 2023): Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Confirms Xi-Biden Meeting at APEC Summit in San Francisco.

A spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) has confirmed in a brief statement that President Xi Jinping will attend the APEC Summit in San Francisco from November 14 to 17, during which he will hold a meeting with President Joe Biden. He will also attend the 30th APEC Economic Leaders’ Informal Dialogue, which will take place on November 16.

US officials had previously announced that the meeting would take place on Wednesday, November 15, but it had not been officially confirmed by the China side.

This will be the first face-to-face meeting between the two leaders since they spoke on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Bali, almost exactly one year ago.

Day 1019 to 1022 (November 4 to 7, 2023): China Climate Envoy Xie Zhenhua Meets with US Counterpart John Kerry During US Trip.

China’s veteran climate envoy Xie Zhenhua has met with US climate envoy John Kerry in California to promote bilateral cooperation on climate change ahead of the 28th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28), which will convene at the end of November in Dubai.

According to a brief statement from the Chinese Ministry of Environment and Ecology (MEE), the two sides conducted a “a comprehensive and in-depth exchange of views, and the meeting “reached positive results on carrying out bilateral cooperation and actions on climate change and jointly promoting the success of [COP28]”.

The US side has not yet released information following the conclusion of the meetings.

The conclusion of the meetings coincided with the release by the MEE of a Methane Emissions Control Action Plan, a potential move to lay the groundwork for further discussions on methane reduction at COP28.

Day 1021 (November 6, 2023): US and China Hold “Rare” Nuclear Arms Talks in Washington.

Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance (AVC) Mallory Stewart and Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Director-General of Arms Control Sun Xiaobo on Monday met for discussions on nuclear arms control and non-proliferation. It is the first meeting of its nature between the two nuclear powers since 2019.

Per a statement from the MFA, the two sides exchanged views on a wide range of topics, including the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, cooperation among the five nuclear-weapon states (US, Russia, the UK, France, and China), nuclear security, non-proliferation and export control, biological and chemical treaty compliance, outer space security, and conventional arms control.

According to a statement from the Department of State, the US:

  • “Emphasized the importance of increased PRC nuclear transparency and substantive engagement on practical measures to manage and reduce strategic risks across multiple domains”; and

  • “Highlighted the need to promote stability, help avert an unconstrained arms race, and manage competition so that it does not veer into conflict”.

Meanwhile, the MFA statement said that China emphasized the need for dialogue and cooperation on the basis of mutual respect between the two countries, and that “both sides should […], commit to safeguarding the international arms control and non-proliferation system, and achieve lasting peace and universal security in the world”.

Day 1021 (November 6, 2023): US Treasury Secretary to Host Vice Premier He Lifeng in San Francisco from November 9 to 10.

The US Department of the Treasury has announced a visit by Chinese Vice Premier He Lifeng for two days of bilateral meetings on November 9 and 10 in San Francisco, California. The meetings will take place just a few days ahead of the expected meeting between President Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden at the APEC Summit, which will also be held in San Francisco. The meetings are “designed to further stabilize the bilateral economic relationship and make progress on key economic issues”.

Secretary Yellen visited Beijing in July 2023, during which she met with several high-level Chinese officials, including Vice Premier He. These meetings resulted in the establishment of a joint Economic Working Group and Financial Working Group between the Department of the Treasury and the Chinese Ministry of Finance (MOF).

Day 1020 to 1025 (November 5 to 10, 2023): US Sends Largest-Ever Delegation to CIIE, Focusing on Agriculture Exports.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is leading a delegation of officials and 17 exhibitors to this year’s China International Import Expo (CIIE) as part of the largest-ever delegation of US representatives since the event’s inauguration in 2018.

Joining the delegation are several US officials, including acting deputy under-secretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs at the USDA Jason Hafemeister and senior adviser for North Asia at the USDA Wade Sheppard. The US has historically not sent government officials to the CIIE, making their attendance this year all the more significant.

Several other US agricultural groups and local US officials are also attending the expo. Among them is the US Heartland China Association, a private bipartisan organization that aims to build stronger ties between China and the US’ agriculture and industry-driven heartland region, which is sending a delegation of 20 state governors “to explore trade opportunities”. In addition, delegates from the American Meat Export Federation, the USA Poultry and Egg Export Council, the USA Rice Federation, and the US Cranberry Marketing Committee will also be present, per CIIE organizers.

The US delegation’s pavilion at CIIE 2023, which is co-sponsored by the USDA and the American Chamber of Commerce in China (AmCham China), will showcase agricultural products and technologies from California, Idaho, and Georgia.

China is the largest market for US agricultural products, in particular soybeans, corn, cotton, and meat products. In 2022, the US agricultural exports to China reached a total of US$40.9 billion, up 14.5 percent year-on-year according to the USDA.

The importance of the Chinese market to US agriculture makes it a pragmatic entry point to improving US-China relations and trade ties.

At the opening ceremony of the US pavilion at the CIIE, the US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns called for more bilateral trade between the US and China, and stated that he is “not in favor of decoupling these two economies”.

The other US officials in attendance also made several comments in favor of more bilateral trade:

  • Jason Hafemeister stated that “The Chinese market is very important and it has a lot of growth potential”;

  • Connie Cheung from the Almond Board of California said that China’s huge consumer base and growing demand for “healthy, nutritious, and sustainable products” is driving market sales; and

  • Brent Boydston, Chairman of the US Grains Council, said that the council “looks forward to deepening the partnership [with China] during this trip”.

Day 1016 (November 1, 2023): White House Press Secretary Confirms Xi-Biden Meeting at APEC Summit in San Francisco.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre confirmed in a back-and-forth with a reporter at a press meeting that the much-anticipated meeting between President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping will be held at the APEC Summit in San Francisco in mid-November. When prompted by the reporter, Jean-Pierre stated that “we’re having a constructive conversation in San Francisco” and “I think I just confirmed [the meeting]”.

The Chinese side has not yet released any official confirmation of the meeting. However, an unnamed US official told the Associated Press that during Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Washington DC from October 27 to 29, the two sides had reached “an agreement in principle” to hold the meeting, but that the exact date and venue had not yet been confirmed. The APEC Summit will run from November 11 to 17 in San Francisco.

When asked about these reports during a press briefing on November 1, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin would not confirm the meeting, simply saying that “China and the US agreed to work together for a meeting between the two heads of state in San Francisco”.

If the meeting goes ahead as planned, it will be the first face-to-face meeting between the two leaders since November 2022, when they met on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia.

Day 1011 to 1013 (October 27 to 29): Foreign Minister Wang Yi Meets Joe Biden and Top US Officials in Washington Visit, Laying Groundwork for Xi-Biden Meeting.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with US President Joe Biden and other high-level US officials during his trip to Washington DC, a preparatory visit ahead of the potential meeting between Biden and President Xi Jinping at the APEC Conference in San Francisco in November.

The anticipated meeting was raised several times over the course of the trip, despite a Foreign Ministry spokesperson stating that the road to San Francisco “would not be a smooth one”.

A brief readout of the meeting from China’s Foreign Ministry states that the purpose of the meeting was to “communicate with the US side to earnestly implement the important common understandings between the two heads of state”, with Wang stating that “the two sides should work to stabilize the China-US relationship from further deterioration, and bring it back to the track of sound and stable development at an early date”. The Foreign Ministry readout also noted the “upcoming meeting in San Francisco”.

Meanwhile, according to a readout from the White House, Biden “emphasized that both the United States and China need to manage competition in the relationship responsibly and maintain open lines of communication” and that “the United States and China must work together to address global challenges”.

During his trip to DC, Wang also met with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. In the meeting with Sullivan, which focused on matters related to international security, the two sides “reaffirmed their desire to maintain this strategic channel of communication and to pursue additional high-level diplomacy, including working together towards a meeting between President Biden and President Xi Jinping in San Francisco in November.”

Wang also held two rounds of meetings with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in which “Both sides agreed to work together to achieve a meeting between the two heads of state in San Francisco”, per the Foreign Ministry. The two sides committed to engaging in various forms of communication, including “China-US maritime affairs consultations, China-US military control and non-proliferation consultations, China-US foreign policy consultations, and China-US coordination on disability affairs”. They also discussed signing a memorandum of understanding on cooperation on disability affairs in the near future.

They also agreed to further increase the number of direct passenger flights between China and the US.


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