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Will the US-China Step Back from the Brink Persist in 2024?

Updated: Dec 25, 2023

As 2023 nears its end, the tenuous relationship between the United States and China continues to hang in the balance. What seemed like an impending catastrophe eased slightly following a strategic meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping near San Francisco on November 15th.


Dubbed the "San Francisco vision" by the Chinese, this encounter provided a glimmer of hope amid escalating tensions that had the world on edge, fearing the possibility of a catastrophic crisis or even nuclear warfare. The big question looms: will this step back from the brink persist into 2024?


Several events leading up to this summit set the stage for potential disaster, from economic clashes to escalating military standoffs involving Taiwan and the disputed South China Sea territories. The trajectory seemed ominously fixed on a collision course, with dire predictions of dire consequences. Both Beijing and Washington came to realize the catastrophic implications of a full-blown crisis or war.


They acknowledged that even a severe trade war or severed ties would wreak havoc on both sides of the Pacific, disrupting global security, pandemic containment, and climate change efforts. The specter of a war between these superpowers cast a chilling shadow, with projections of immense casualties and the unsettling threat of nuclear conflict.


Efforts to find a way out of this alarming path were evident in high-level talks between the nations. Ahead of the Biden-Xi summit, senior officials engaged in visits aimed at halting the downward spiral and offering a glimmer of hope for tension reduction. The primary aim of the San Francisco summit was to reverse this trend, with both leaders agreeing on the necessity of averting hostility and conflict.


They pledged to refrain from provocative actions and address their differences responsibly, yet substantial changes in policies remained absent. The fundamental trajectory of US-China relations stayed largely unchanged, with contentious issues such as trade, technology transfers, and Taiwan left unresolved.


The overarching theme of strategic rivalry persisted despite minor efforts to improve relations. Concerns loom over a potential resurgence of crises and confrontations in 2024, as both leaders face pressure from domestic factions to uphold their stances on crucial bilateral matters. Future crises could ignite from various contentious issues, particularly disagreements regarding Taiwan and the South China Sea.


Calls are growing louder for a shift from the Biden administration's "strategic ambiguity" toward Taiwan and a move toward "strategic clarity," a shift that could escalate hostilities. Unforeseen events, such as clashes between Chinese and American ally warships in the South China Sea, could trigger unpredictable outcomes.


Presidents Biden and Xi must navigate these obstacles cautiously to prevent a full-blown crisis in 2024. Drawing lessons from the San Francisco meeting and bolstering crisis management resources will be crucial. However, entrenched bellicose forces in both nations, fueled by powerful military-industrial complexes and political objectives, pose substantial hurdles. These forces often benefit from perpetuating mistrust and animosity, pushing leaders to heighten hostilities rather than defuse them.


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