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  1. The Staggers
15 November 2023

The end of panda diplomacy  

Joe Biden and Xi Jinping are meeting in San Francisco. Expectations on both sides are low.

By Katie Stallard

WASHINGTON — During Richard Nixon’s famous visit to China as US president in February 1972, which opened the way to formal diplomatic relations between the two countries, the first lady, Pat Nixon, told the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, how much she had enjoyed seeing the giant pandas at Beijing’s zoo. “I’ll give you some,” he promptly replied. Two months later, the first two pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, arrived in Washington, kickstarting what became known as panda diplomacy and seemingly symbolising a promising new era of engagement between China and the US.

That era – and the optimism on both sides about the outlook for US-China relations – is now definitively over. So it is perhaps fitting that the pandas have also been recalled. Exactly one week before Joe Biden’s meeting with Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in San Francisco today (15 November), the last three pandas at Washington’s National Zoo lumbered into special crates to begin their long journey to China. The remaining four pandas in the US – at a zoo in Atlanta – are due to return to China in 2024.

The UK will lose its own pandas next month, when Yang Guang and Tian Tian depart Edinburgh Zoo for China. (Beijing has been clear that the pandas always belonged to China and would return home when their leases expired.) In keeping with China’s new geopolitical priorities, the country has instead dispatched its furry emissaries to Russia and Qatar. 

The fate of these ungainly bears might seem trivial when set against the rapidly deteriorating relationship between the world’s two largest economies. But the departure of Washington’s pandas last week – breathlessly documented on television and in national newspapers – set the tone for the meeting between Biden and Xi, which has been characterised by low expectations on both sides. Unlike their previous encounter at the G20 summit in Bali last November, this time there is no longer even talk of “building a floor” beneath the relationship. Instead, the focus is on managing its decline. As the US national security adviser Jake Sullivan summed up the Biden administration’s approach ahead of the meeting, the priority now is “managing competition responsibly so that it does not veer into conflict”.

Recent events have demonstrated why that is such an important goal. The US military said that on 24 October a Chinese fighter jet flew within ten feet of a US B-52 bomber over the South China Sea. In response, the Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning blamed the incident on the US military, which she said had “travelled thousands of miles to China’s doorstep to flex muscle”. For its part, the Pentagon says these close encounters are part of a “a centralised and concerted campaign” by the Chinese military across the region, with at least 180 such incidents in the last two years – more than the previous decade.

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[See also: Humza Yousaf: what my family went through in Gaza]

Then there is the issue of China’s repeated incursions across the median line of the Taiwan Strait, part of what analysts view as an increasingly aggressive pressure campaign against the self-ruling island, which is due to hold presidential elections in January. At their meeting, Biden is also expected to raise Xi’s refusal to condemn Hamas’s 7 October attack on Israel, as well as China’s economic and diplomatic support for Russia, and human rights abuses in the country.  

Xi has plenty of his own complaints for Biden, including what he has called a US-led campaign of “encirclement and suppression” against China, Washington’s restrictions on exports of advanced technology to China, and the administration’s approach to Taiwan, which the US president has vowed four times to defend against a Chinese invasion since coming to power.  

Still, there are tentative hopes for incremental progress that might help to stabilise the relationship. Xi and Biden are expected to announce a deal to crack down on exports of the precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl from China, which would amount to a political win for Biden as he could point to concrete action to tackle America’s worsening opioid crisis. The two sides could also agree to limit the use of artificial intelligence in some military technologies, such as nuclear weapons systems, and to re-start military-to-military communications, which were suspended after then speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last year. The disappearance and subsequent sacking of Li Shangfu, the Chinese defence minister, this summer could help to precipitate the latter as the fact that he had been sanctioned by the US was a barrier to resuming high-level contacts.

With the Chinese economy slowing, Xi is also expected to attend a dinner in San Francisco with American business executives where he will stress that his country remains open to foreign investment. The event has already proved controversial, however, with reports that US companies are paying up to $40,000 a table to attend, and Mike Gallagher, the Republican chair of the US House Select Committee on China, calling the planned dinner “unconscionable”. This in itself is an indication of how much the domestic political climate around engagement with Beijing has changed since Xi’s last visit to the US in 2017, with Americans’ views of China reaching historic lows and Biden’s Republican opponents looking for any evidence that he is “soft” on China.  

Both leaders know that this will probably be their last in-person meeting before a potentially tumultuous year which will include not only Taiwan’s elections but also a close race for the White House in November that could yet return Donald Trump to power. Perhaps the most important lesson from their previous meeting in Bali is how quickly external events can intervene. Despite their warm words then, the US secretary of state Antony Blinken’s planned follow-up visit to Beijing was scuppered by the appearance of a rogue Chinese spy balloon in American airspace in February and the diplomatic crisis that ensued. This summit merely represents the mutual desire to get back to that pre-crisis level of détente.

For now, both sides agree on the need to keep talking. This is preferable to the alternative, but it is a long way from a solid plan to make the relationship much better. The heady days of panda diplomacy and high hopes for US-China ties are long gone. And yes, of course I went to see the pandas before they left.    

[See also: The Tory right’s divided tribes]

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