China Meets the U.S. to Discuss Fentanyl, But the Détente Has Limits

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China and the United States are back at the negotiating table. Whether they can agree on much is another matter.

In Bangkok, China’s top diplomat last week discussed North Korea and Iran with President Biden’s national security adviser. Days later, in Beijing, officials restarted long-stalled talks on curbing the flow of fentanyl to the United States. And the White House says Mr. Biden plans to speak by phone with China’s leader, Xi Jinping, in the spring.

The developments point to a tentative détente struck by Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi at a summit near San Francisco in November — and both the potential and the limitations of that thaw in relations. Even as the world’s two superpowers are working to manage frictions, the diplomacy has also exposed the chasm at the heart of the tensions: how to define the relationship.

The Biden administration has maintained that the countries are strategic competitors, and that the meetings are crucial to ensuring that the rivalry does not veer into conflict. Chinese officials, however, reject that framing, seeing competition as code for containment. In the meetings, they have pushed a new catchphrase, the “San Francisco Vision,” claiming that Mr. Xi and Mr. Biden agreed at the summit to stabilize relations and put competition aside.

The divergence in rhetoric highlights the fragility of the current reset, especially in an election year when Mr. Biden will come under pressure to be tough on China, and as concerns rise over warnings by the Federal Bureau of Investigation that Chinese hackers were ramping up plans to infiltrate U.S. infrastructure in the event of a war.

For Mr. Biden, the talks on fentanyl in Beijing are one of the few outcomes of the San Francisco summit that he can point to as a win. China is the main source of chemicals used to make fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that kills 100,000 Americans a year. U.S. officials have long wanted China to do more to restrict exports of those chemicals, known as precursors, but Beijing stopped cooperating as ties deteriorated in recent years.

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China Meets the U.S. to Discuss Fentanyl, But the Détente Has Limits

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