Why Are Relations With China So Important Right Now?

Western leaders have been keen to get back on cordial terms with President Xi Jinping.
US President Joe Biden and China's President Xi Jinping meeting at the G20
US President Joe Biden and China's President Xi Jinping meeting at the G20
SAUL LOEB via Getty Images

China’s fraying relationship with the US and its allies (including the UK) has been under scrutiny recently – but could there be a new dawn around the corner?

With the leaders from the wealthiest countries all attending this week’s G20 summit in Bali, there seems to have been some progress in easing tensions.

Here’s everything you need to know about Beijing’s turbulent relationship with the West and why it’s so important.

Tensions around Taiwan

Taiwan, an island off China’s east coast, split from Beijing during a civil war in the 1940s.

It has since become self-governed, but China still sees it as very much part of the mainland – and has repeatedly claimed it has plans to bring the countries together.

Most nations technically recognise Taiwan as part of China under Beijing’s “One-China Policy”, in order to maintain good international relations with the growing nation.

The US skirts around these issues by providing Taiwan with a means to defend itself, although it insists that it does not recognise the state’s independence.

China’s ruling Communist Party has warned it will use force if Taiwan ever formally declares independence, while Taiwan maintains it is a sovereign state, and that it will continue to protect itself.

Then, speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi flew to Taiwan in August, in a symbolic gesture, appearing to show the US’s loyalty to the island over China.

Since that pivotal event, negotiations between the US and China over addressing the climate crisis have come to a complete halt.

Beijing has also accused Washington of elevating the pro-independence factions in Taiwan, such as the quasi-alliances like the ‘Quad’ to counter China.

The US is also worried about China’s military activity in Taiwan, amid fears it could overrun the independent state without warning.

Any sign of resolution?

There are early signs that tensions are quietening down.

Biden told China that its Taiwan policy was “aggressive” and “coercive”, which undermined peace in the region.

Xi told Biden that the Taiwan question was at the “very core of China’s core interests” and the “first red line” in their bilateral relationship.

China also suggested it was the US who was to blame for this tension, although Biden promised the White House was still committed to the “One China” policy.

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (R) being welcomed by Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (L) after landing at Songshan Airport in August
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (R) being welcomed by Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (L) after landing at Songshan Airport in August
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Nuclear arsenal

The White House is significantly worried about China’s nuclear weaponry. China is seen as the most capable long-term competitor (while Russia is more of an imminent threat).

In October, Biden described China as “the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic diplomatic, military and technological power to advance that objective”.

The White House sees Beijing as “America’s most consequential geopolitical challenge”.

The Federation of American Scientists thinks there are around 350 nuclear warheads in China’s possession (the US has 5,428) – but this is expected to expand to more than 1,000 by 2030.

Biden, in the meantime, has been strengthening his alliances with other world powers such as with the AUKUS deal (security pact between Australia, the UK and the US).

Any sign of resolution?

It seems both sides were able to agree that Russia is still the primary concern, a vague echo of a policy which last brought the two nations together during the Cold War: the shared enemy of the Soviet Union.

“Nuclear weapons should not be used and nuclear wars should not be fought,” China’s foreign minister Wang Yi claimed Xi told Biden.

Russian aggression

China has refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, unlike much of the West.

China and India are Russia’s only remaining acquaintances on the world stage, and if they were to completely shut Moscow out, there’s a chance Russia would have to pull back from its offensive.

Any sign of resolution?

According to the US, the leaders agreed that they were opposed to “the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine”.

But, US Republicans may also want him to be tougher on China who said that any sign of easing from Xi may be pointless because of the president’s “record of saying one thing and doing something else”.

What does this have to do with the rest of Europe?

While the tensions do boil down to issues between China and the US, as prominent allies of the States, European nations are involved, too.

New prime minister Rishi Sunak tried to play down his previously tough stance on Beijing ahead of the G20. During the summer when he was competing for the Tory leadership, he said China is “the largest threat to Britain and the world’s security and prosperity this century”.

On Sunday, Sunak also acknowledged that the West could not resolve shared global challenges including Russian and Ukraine or climate change without them.

Then on the way to the G20, the PM said: “I think that China unequivocally poses a systemic threat — well, a systemic challenge, to our values and our interests, and is undoubtedly the biggest state-based threat to our economic security, let me put it that way.”

He has not said whether the UK should send arms to Taiwan – a claim his predecessor Liz Truss made during her brief time in No.10.

French president Emmanuel Macron also called for Paris and Beijing to unite against the war in Ukraine on Tuesday. He allegedly asked Xi to intervene with Putin, and persuade him to stop the “escalation in Ukraine”.

According to Paris, the “line are starting to move” on the Chinese side “while Beijing is trying to “find a situation of balance”.

On top of this, security, economic, climate change and trade tensions remain – but this was a positive start.

China's President Xi Jinping arrives for the G20 leaders' summit in Bali
China's President Xi Jinping arrives for the G20 leaders' summit in Bali
MAST IRHAM via Getty Images

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