Biden-Xi meeting aftermath: A prisoner swap, and a search for ‘strategic stability’

Foreign Affairs

Three major outcomes of the Biden-Xi meeting are becoming clearer: A journalist visa thaw, nuclear-arms talks of some type, and an apparent prisoner swap involving China lifting an exit ban on one American, while seven Chinese citizens were deported from the U.S.

joe biden xi jinping meeting
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks virtually with Chinese leader Xi Jinping from the White House on November 15, 2021. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Three days out from the first face-to-face — if virtual — meeting this year of U.S. and Chinese leaders Joe Biden and Xí Jìnpíng 习近平, three major outcomes are becoming clearer:

  1. An apparent prisoner swap;
  2. Nuclear-arms talks of some type; and
  3. A journalist visa thaw.

Two of these had earlier been reported by one side, though not immediately confirmed by the other: The U.S. had said there was an agreement to discuss “strategic stability” and Chinese media had reported an agreement on journalist visas.

Prisoner swap

The release of one American who had been under an exit ban in China for four years and the deportation of seven Chinese citizens from the U.S. was reported just today by Reuters:

Daniel Hsu’s return also coincided with the United States’ deportation of seven Chinese nationals convicted of crimes, including at least one who was sought by Beijing to face fraud charges. A U.S. government official denied the individuals were part of an exchange.

The seven Chinese citizens returned to China are:

Xu Guojun, a former president of a Bank of China branch who fled to the United States in 2001…Zhang Yujing and Lu Jing, who both tried to enter Mar-a-Lago in 2019; Wang Yuhao and Zhang Jielun, who had been sentenced to 10 months and 12 months respectively for photographing a U.S. defense installation in Florida; and Sun Yong and Tang Junliang, convicted of financial crimes.

Some officials “were concerned about the optics of an apparent exchange linked to the meeting, worried it would encourage Beijing to use more exit bans,” Reuters added.

  • The U.S. and China engaged in another apparent prisoner swap in September, as a U.S. deal that allowed Huawei CFO Mèng Wǎnzhōu 孟晚舟 to leave Canada and escape extradition was swiftly followed by China’s release of two Canadian detainees, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.
  • That event also coincided with China lifting exit bans on two Americans, Cynthia and Victor Liu, who had a similar situation to Daniel Hsu in that their father was wanted by Chinese authorities for alleged financial crimes, and they believed they were being kept as leverage.

Nuclear arms talks to begin at Track II, or higher?

Biden and Xi “have agreed to hold talks aimed at reducing tensions, as U.S. anxiety grows at China’s expanding nuclear arsenal and its recent test of a hypersonic weapon,” the Financial Times reported the day after the leaders meeting.

  • The FT cited comments from Jake Sullivan, U.S. national security adviser, that the two sides had “agreed that we would look to begin to carry forward discussions on strategic stability.”
  • Today, a Chinese official told the Wall Street Journal that “the two sides could start a so-called Track II dialogue, among nongovernment defense analysts and academics.”
  • That format “would represent a step back from previous nuclear-arms meetings between the two countries,” the WSJ notes, because between 2004 and 2009, “analysts from China and the U.S., as well as officials, met in a nonofficial capacity, though the talks ultimately fell apart.”
  • Still, better understanding China’s intentions in expanding its nuclear arsenal is a major focus of analysts in Washington, and Beijing signalling openness to reviving arms talks is a step forward.

Journalist visa thaw confirmed, but details are worryingly unclear

After initially being reported by Chinese media such as China Daily, the U.S. State Department confirmed that China “has committed to issue visas for a group of U.S. reporters.” It is still unclear who might return and when:

  • According to the initial China Daily report, China committed to “granting equal treatment to U.S. journalists immediately after U.S. policies enter into force.”
  • In a possible sign that some of the expelled U.S. journalists may encounter difficulties should they seek to return to China, the nationalistic tabloid the Global Times published a piece with this title: U.S. reporters’ visa restrictions may be eased, but ‘China haters’ still unwelcome: experts.
  • Not everyone outside of China is entirely happy with the conditions of the journalist visa thaw, either: Politico cites critical comments from Reporters Without Borders as well as Republican senators in the U.S.

Can the warming trend in ties continue?

Maybe not for long. At least on the U.S. side, there is significant pressure to toughen up policy towards China. The Biden administration is reportedly considering a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics in February 2022, and the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission in its annual report recommended stronger defense of Taiwan and more restrictions on Chinese investment and U.S. investment in China, among other measures. For more, see: