Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
In words that shouldn't have to be said but were important to express, Chinese President Xi Jinping told Joe Biden on Wednesday that "Planet Earth is big enough" for the two superpowers.
That's a low bar. But it's reflective of the depths of the U.S.-China relationship, which is the most strained in decades over fundamental and growing differences concerning philosophy, geopolitics, trade and other matters, making an already fragile dynamic even more fraught. Xi seemed to acknowledge this when he told his American counterpart that it was "unrealistic" to "remodel the other."
Remodel, no. Reconnect, yes — which even Xi said was imperative. "For two large countries like China and the United States, turning their back on each other is not an option," the Chinese leader said, even though that's in effect what happened when China cut off military-to-military communication. Fortunately, for each country and the world, that will soon be restored in order to not allow an accident to spiral into a calamity.
In another important — albeit incremental — move, China agreed to help end the shipment of components integral to the production of fentanyl. "It's going to save lives, and I appreciated President Xi's commitment on this issue," Biden said, without hyperbole, since fentanyl is part of a drug scourge killing scores of thousands of Americans yearly. Progress was also made on establishing working groups on artificial-intelligence challenges and advancing climate-change cooperation.
Emphasis was put on issues that didn't have as clear-cut outcomes but are equally important, including Biden highlighting China's ability, and responsibility, to persuade Iran to not fan the fires of the war between Israel and Hamas into a regional conflagration. Taiwan was certainly addressed, too, especially in advance of the island's upcoming election. But the two sides are far apart on that and other issues related to Biden's rightful prioritization of defending democracies amid a global rise in authoritarianism. China, for instance, is complicit in Russia's illegal, immoral invasion of Ukraine, and its unwillingness to curb North Korea further destabilizes the world — particularly the Pacific region.
The Pacific and Asian nations were the backdrop of the summit, with Xi and Biden meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation confab being held in San Francisco. The meeting comes at a time when China could use a boost of economic cooperation, with its vaunted growth in a significant stall.
For his part, Biden told delegates from the 21 assembled nations that "The U.S. will continue to compete vigorously with the People's Republic of China. But we'll manage that competition responsibly, so it doesn't veer into conflict or accidental conflict. And where it's possible, were our interests coincide, we're going to work together."
Interests have often coincided economically, despite the political friction on both sides of the Pacific. And that's often benefited Minnesota, too: China, in fact, was the state's third-largest export market in 2022, at $2.7 billion, below only North American neighbors Canada ($9 billion) and Mexico ($2.8 billion), according to data from the Department of Employment and Economic Development.
"Practically all of the large manufacturing firms, and for that matter many of the medium and small manufacturing firms in Minnesota, have a China strategy, whether as a market and growth opportunity, or as a source for some part of their supply chains," Sri Zaheer, a professor and dean emerita of the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, told an editorial writer in an email exchange. "So a stable bilateral relationship is absolutely critical for the continued growth and efficiency of the manufacturing sector of our state's economy."
The agricultural sector can and has benefited, too, according to Ed Usset, an extension professor in the Department of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota. Usset points out that China is expected to account for over 60% of total world soybean imports in the current marketing year and is a large importer of corn. Minnesota, he added, ranks third and fourth, respectively, among soybean- and corn-producing states, said that "in-state processing is a big plus for Minnesota, but exports are critical to the total demand picture."
Zaheer concluded by stating that "There is no question in my mind that this is the world's most important geopolitical and geoeconomic relationship" which "is important not just for the U.S. and China but is one that affects countries all over the world, with many watching and waiting to see if they can turn the tension to their benefit, or will be hurt as well in the process."
Easing tension is indeed in everyone's interest. And while the recent meeting had a limited agenda and outcome, it was at least a step in the right direction. No nation, especially the United States, should overlook China's human-rights record, regional maritime aggression, support of repressive regimes and other destabilizing policies. But despite — or perhaps because of — these perils it's important for Washington and Beijing to try to have a constructive dialogue, so the planet can in fact be big enough for both of them.