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biden xi summit Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Broken Engagement

Given the current poor state of US-China relations, the fact that the November 15 online summit between presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping took place at all was significant. But with nationalist narratives seeming to prevail in both countries, neither seems prepared to collaborate on issues transcending the nation-state.

In this Big Picture, Daniel Russel, a former US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, argues that Biden’s recent overtures to Xi, far from signaling American weakness, are part of a savvy foreign-policy approach toward the region. But Harvard University’s Joseph S. Nye, Jr. likens today’s deepening Sino-American rivalry to the situation in Europe during the run-up to World War I, and highlights the risks of inadvertent escalation between the two powers.

And sources of tension are not difficult to find. Anne O. Krueger of Johns Hopkins University notes that the Biden administration is perpetuating former President Donald Trump’s failed protectionist strategy vis-à-vis China. More broadly, Fudan University’s Zhang Jun thinks the increasing – and bipartisan – US antagonism toward China reflects the technology-driven transformation of American media and politics.

But how might US-China ties improve? Harvard’s Dani Rodrik calls into question the realist assumption that international relations, including the current superpower rivalry, must necessarily be a conflictual, zero-sum game.

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