Chinese President Xi Jinping's absence from the Group of 20 summit this weekend has dashed hopes for an ease in tensions between Beijing and Washington any time soon, although the clock is ticking for the two rivals to make progress before the 2024 U.S presidential election.
The two countries are now believed to be exploring a summit between Xi and U.S. President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the APEC summit in San Francisco in November. However, experts believe they are not likely to achieve a breakthrough, while the U.S. election campaign would make concessions from Washington even more difficult.
Prior to the G-20 summit in New Delhi, senior U.S. officials, such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, held discussions with their Chinese counterparts during recent visits to China with the goal of fostering open communication and reducing the risk of misinterpretations.
Amid an intensifying rivalry, tensions remain high between the world's two largest economies over a host of issues, such as Taiwan and trade disputes, notably tit-for-tat export control measures on items related to semiconductors.
Bruce Dickson, a professor specializing in Chinese politics at George Washington University in the U.S. capital, said Xi's absence was "a missed opportunity on China's part" as the momentum for improved bilateral ties that have been built up through the visits by U.S. officials will not be able to continue.
The professor said it is still possible for Xi and Biden to meet on the fringes of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit in the United States. But he does not foresee real progress in improving ties, saying, "chances they're getting much better in the near future are low."
With the two countries' economies mingled together, Beijing and Washington share the recognition that "complete decoupling or even a de-risking is just difficult and may not be beneficial to do," Dickson said.
They are also eager to avoid a military conflict, possibly in the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea, and try not to have the bilateral relationship spiral out of control, he added, saying that seems to be "one sign of hope."
But referring to widespread negative sentiment toward Beijing in the United States, where there seems to be "a competition about who can be the toughest on China," the professor indicated any approach for better managing the bilateral relationship should be made by the end of this year due to campaigning for the U.S. presidential election next year.
"The United States is going to take a more conservative, security-oriented approach to China," which will make Xi's overall willingness to compromise with Washington more difficult, said Stephen Nagy, professor at International Christian University in Tokyo.
Li Haidong, a professor at the China Foreign Affairs University, told The Global Times on Sept. 1 that the lack of consensus and consistency within the Biden administration regarding its China policy, congressional obstruction and polarization makes the United States move into "a track of habitual confrontation" with China.
The United States has some "extreme China hawks," but if they dominate the White House's foreign policy, the Biden administration will lose its diplomatic function, the tabloid affiliated with China's ruling Communist Party quoted Lu Xiang, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, as saying.
In addition, Nagy said the presidential election next January in Taiwan, a self-ruled democratic island that Communist-led Beijing claims as its own, could also complicate the situation.
Cross-strait relations could further deteriorate if Taiwan Vice President Lai Ching-te of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party wins the election to succeed Tsai Ing-wen. Beijing sharply reacted to his U.S. transits during a trip to Paraguay in August.
Dickson pointed out that Xi may be more interested in building up institutions that provide an alternative to a U.S.-led system than trying to improve Beijing's ties with Washington.
As an example, he raised an accord reached at a summit of the BRICS countries -- Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- in Johannesburg late last month to expand the membership of the group.
The addition of six countries -- Argentina, Ethiopia, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates -- was "a big success" for Xi, Dickson said.
The United States has been leading various frameworks aimed at keeping China in check, such as AUKUS, Quad and the three-way framework involving its Asian allies Japan and South Korea.
During a meeting at the U.S. presidential retreat of Camp David near Washington last month, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Biden agreed to hold a trilateral summit at least once a year and hold three-way defense exercises on a regular basis.
Jeff Kingston, professor of history and Asian studies at Temple University Japan, said those frameworks are "all aimed at containing China and thus create an atmosphere of distrust that complicates any diplomatic initiatives."
Dickson also pointed out that U.S. efforts have created a "security dilemma," a situation in which actions taken by a country to increase its security cause reactions from other nations, ultimately resulting in a decrease in security.
"You have this back and forth. People are trying to protect their security, but in ways that make the other country feel threatened. That seems to be a dynamic here" between the United States and China, Dickson said, referring to Beijing's efforts to increase allies, including through the BRICS expansion in response.
Nagy warned that Beijing will "continue to try and drive a wedge" between the United States and its allies and urged Japan and other Western countries to push back against such efforts and support the various U.S.-led frameworks to preserve a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region.