Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He was the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize.
TOKYO -- China's media outlets have halted verbal attacks on the U.S., at least for now.
The thaw of sorts comes in the wake of a phone call last week between President Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden. It was the first such conversation in seven months, and it has received unusually favorable reactions on Chinese social media. "This time," one post noted, "Biden showed some sincerity."
One issue on everybody's mind is whether there will be a first in-person summit between Xi and Biden.
When people ponder this question, developments in Chinese domestic politics tend to be overlooked. "The Aug. 31 decision to hold a key meeting of the Chinese Communist Party in November is binding diplomacy," a Chinese source said.
The key meeting refers to the sixth plenary session of the party's Central Committee, a high-profile gathering where leaders will lay the groundwork for the next national congress, in the autumn of 2022.
For Xi, who is also the party's general secretary and is seeking to maintain his status as No. 1 in 2022 and beyond, the sixth plenary session represents the first major hurdle.
The November meeting will come at an unusually late date compared to the past five "sixth plenary" sessions, all held by the end of October. It is possible to interpret the delay as an indication of the tense, behind-the-scenes preparations leading up to the big event.
Once the sixth plenary session was announced, China's diplomacy kicked into high gear, with Qin Gang, the new ambassador to Washington, delivering a noteworthy speech on Aug. 31 to the New York-based National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.
Qin signaled China's intention to explore a breakthrough in its stalled relations with the U.S. Often seen as one of China's "wolf-warrior diplomats," Qin showed no such fangs that day.
"China and the U.S. should not go for misunderstanding, misjudgment, conflict or confrontation," Qin said. "Some people believe that China is betting against America, and China's goal is to challenge and displace America. This is a serious misjudgment of China's strategic intention."
Back in China, Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Sept. 1 held an online meeting with John Kerry, the U.S.'s special presidential envoy for climate, who was visiting the city of Tianjin.
The next day, Han Zheng, China's first vice premier and one of the seven Politburo Standing Committee members, and Yang Jiechi, China's top diplomat, also held online meetings with Kerry.
What should be noted about the 90-minute phone call is that it was Biden who brought up the importance of avoiding miscommunication, miscalculation and unintended conflict -- echoes of what Qin had said.
Not long after the call, the White House announced that the first-ever summit of leaders from the four members of the so-called Quad -- the U.S., Japan, India and Australia -- will be held there on Sept. 24.
The Quad summit will take place with an eye on coping with a rising China. Biden's call with Xi was part of his Quad preparations, to accurately measure Xi's position before meeting with the U.S.'s Indo-Pacific partners.
While Biden and Xi agreed to continue their dialogue, the possibility of a face-to-face summit is unclear.
The U.S. is exploring the possibility of holding a Biden-Xi meeting on the sidelines of an annual summit of leaders from the Group of 20 major economies to be held in Italy at the end of October. Bloomberg reported Wednesday that Xi declined Biden's offer during the call. Biden later told reporters that such a rejection was not true.
The window for an overseas trip by the end of October remains slightly ajar. Technically, Xi would be able to go to the G-20, return to China, go through the necessary quarantine measures and be ready to attend the sixth plenary session in November.
However, he cannot afford to jump at the chance so easily. The last time Xi left the country, way back on Jan. 17-18, 2020, was to visit Myanmar.
While he was visiting Myanmar, an unknown virus was beginning to wreak havoc in Wuhan. Numerous carriers with no or mild symptoms who did not realize the seriousness of the situation traveled outside the city, many going overseas. The beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak coincided with the Chinese New Year holidays, a peak travel season for hundreds of millions of people.
Xi moved from Myanmar to China's Yunnan Province, as was scheduled. From there, on Jan. 20, he issued an order on the coronavirus. Until then, the Chinese government had refused to acknowledge that human-to-human transmissions was possible.
His failure to return immediately to Beijing and not being at the center of the crisis response in the initial days proved traumatic, and the president has not traveled overseas in the past one year and eight months.
Xi has thus become the rare G-20 leader who remains holed up in his own country.
He also wants to avoid any overseas trip during which he might be criticized for China's serious mistakes in its initial response to the pandemic, or face a chorus of calls for an investigation into the virus's origins.
Xi has already declared victory in the fight against COVID-19 in China and wants praise, not criticism, from the rest of the world.
He also cannot afford to be branded a leader who failed to control the country's most important foreign relationship: that with the U.S.
Simultaneously, it is impossible for him to make any significant concessions to the U.S., lest he lose face.
If Xi were to cave to U.S. demands, his signature "strong country" policy would lose credibility, and that could lead to the loss of support from leftist forces, those loyal to the principles of socialism.
China's leftists form an important bloc because they are the strongest supporters of Xi's new pursuit of "common prosperity" to correct disparities.
There is another big hurdle: A Summit for Democracy to be hosted by Biden in December. The summit will bring together "heads of state, civil society, philanthropy, and the private sector," according to the White House. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking at a hearing before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in March, did not rule out inviting Taiwan.
The December summit will be held virtually. But if Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen takes part in any way, it would mark a serious setback for the Xi administration.
Such a blow would be particularly damaging if it were to follow Xi's first in-person summit with Biden. It would become a major destabilizing factor ahead of next year's national congress, even if Xi gets what he wants at the sixth plenary session in November.