Why a symbolic exchange matters: Signaling in Biden-Xi Summit

51345488734 c1b450fe4f b

On November 14, 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden met in person with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping for the first time in his presidency.

This summit, conducted as a sideline event in the Group of Twenty (G20) gathering in Bali, was full of paradoxes: on the one hand, despite being described as a “candid exchange in depth,” it was obvious that both parties maintained two parallel narratives of policy and standing. As Biden commented, “we were very blunt with one another about places where we disagreed or where we were uncertain of each other’s position.”[1] The most substantial outcome, if not the meeting itself, was a planned visit by Secretary Blinken to Beijing and the promise to keep the communication channel open.

On the other hand, the effects of the summit were outstanding. It received a welcome and positive outlook from major news outlets, think tanks, and officials, with a focus on “setting the guardrail,” “a warmer tone,” and a “friendly atmosphere.”[2] Just as these abstract notions indicate, the meeting was mainly cherished for its symbolic role in the context of no breakthroughs that have been reached. The face-to-face diplomacy offered a credible signal about the possible improvement of bilateral relations.

It is not the first summit diplomacy has boosted and refreshed a frozen relationship between these two countries. In 1993, after the long-lasting disputes regarding the Tiananmen Square Protest, President Jiang Zemin’s first interaction with President Clinton was on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. Some believe the meeting directly led to state visits between the two countries and the generally stable relationships in the 1990s. During the COVID-19 epidemic, Sino–U.S. relations often deteriorated in rounds of meetings, most of which were virtual and conducted by senior officials. A series of video conferences between Xi and Biden failed to prevent Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

As the social neuroscience theory illustrates, face-to-face interactions enable individuals to understand and empathize with each other’s emotions, intentions, and beliefs. This process reduces uncertainty and increases trust between leaders, even when they have conflicting interests or values.[3] In June 2013, then-President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping held a two-day summit at the Sunnylands estate in California. This informal, face-to-face meeting was a significant departure from the usual formal diplomatic encounters between the two countries. Both leaders built a personal rapport and engaged in candid discussions on various issues, including cybersecurity, climate change, and regional security. The informal nature of the meeting allowed for strong signalling from both sides. President Obama emphasized the importance of a cooperative relationship between the two nations, while President Xi Jinping stressed China’s commitment to peaceful development. The meeting also marked the beginning of the US-China climate change agreement, ultimately leading to the Paris Agreement in 2015. The Sunnylands Summit demonstrated the significance of face-to-face diplomacy in fostering understanding and collaboration between the world’s two largest economies.

However, “face-to-face” interactions have been fraught as well. In the U.S.–China talks in Alaska in 2021, the top diplomats from both sides publicly denounced each other to the media. Failed cases like this one prove the limitation of such exchanges bounded by the context, expectations, and goals of each meeting. However, based on successful cases and theory, one could argue that face-to-face diplomacy matters in summit diplomacy.

When state leaders meet face-to-face at the minor level, they engage in various interaction rituals that stimulate mirror neurons in the brain. These rituals include eye contact, facial expressions, body language, gestures, words, tone, humor, etc. The rituals create a feedback loop of mutual understanding and trust between leaders.[4]

This feedback loop generates a positive feeling of confidence, enthusiasm, and solidarity that arises from successful social interactions-the, the feeling  we refer to as “emotional energy.”[5] The energy could motivate leaders to cooperate and overcome obstacles. Shared emotion in face-to-face interactions helps accurately capture credibility cues by “mirroring,” where actors experience synchronous perceptions when they observe each other taking the same action or thinking the same thing. We could find the headline images of both leaders actively greeting each other with bright smiles and Biden touching Xi’s back to guide the direction, setting the tone for the conference and confirming each leader’s prediction about the other’s friendliness.

Furthermore, the feedback loop binds leaders to honour their commitments by creating a relational contract, an informal agreement based on trust and reciprocity enforced by social norms rather than legal rules. It is confusing to see why it is essential for leaders to just “agree” to keep discussing the future. Nevertheless, by doing this, leaders promise to invest and focus more on a relationship, and the effort itself is an active promise. Although the relational contract is a non-binding agreement on both sides to sustain a relationship, if both sides are willing to be locked in a long-lasting reciprocal relationship, they are both restrained based on a long-term expectation of returns. The Biden–Xi meeting lengthened the interactive ritual chains by presenting a clear timetable for the following exchange, thus leaving more wiggle room for trust probing. Therefore, the relational contract established through trusting, face-to-face interaction balances contemporary interests with future interests and emotions, lengthens the time horizon of the interactors and avoids impulse and short-sightedness.[6]

A future-focused relational contract also restrains opportunistic impulses. Regular face-to-face meetings can raise the relational costs of deceit and betrayal. In the early stage of face-to-face interaction, credibility is thin, and the deception cost is low. However, as the reciprocal relationship of face-to-face interaction continues to strengthen, it will have a chain reaction once deception is discovered, reducing the possibility of subsequent meetings. Realists believe face-to-face interaction is full of deceit and bravado and, therefore, not believable. The argument ignores the constraint force associated with the relationship, and the “long shadow in the future” in the multi-round game can change the decision maker’s preference.[7]

Domestic politics and low expectations have also contributed to the credibility of signals. The two presidents conducted their meetings just after sustaining their power in respective domestic politics, with Xi earning a historic third term and Biden defeating the expected “red wave.” Their acquisition of enough political capital could make their words count and offer confidence to mark this relationship via active engagement.

What makes the meeting successful is also straightforward: the standard for success is low. Following Pelosi’s visit, China retaliated by cutting the main channels and deploying unprecedented military drones across Taiwan. The United States intensified the situation in its National Security Strategy by positioning China as a country that “harbours the intention and, increasingly, the capacity to reshape the international order in favor of one that tilts the global playing field to its benefit.”[8] The practices and perceptions of psychological conflict shape expectations of “building a floor,” as many Western media outlets portray. On a personal level, Biden and Xi addressed each other as “acquaintances,” as they met several times as vice presidents of their respective countries between 2011 and 2014. They also met briefly at a nuclear security summit in Washington in 2016.[9] The friendly and respectful relationship at that time softens the tone of the present messaging, unlike the confrontational encounter between the unfamiliar Yang Jiechi and Jake Sullivan in Alaska.

Cheap signals are made credible by the use of mirror neurons, the activation of social norms, and the creation of interpersonal bonds. What should the world expect after the United States and China have completed this simple but brave move? Does face-to-face diplomacy work? Modern U.S.–China relations originated from face-to-face diplomacy. Henry Kissinger’s secret mission to China in 1971 helped form a grand strategic design and ushered in an era of engagement. Equipped with a sense of timing and opportunity and a keen understanding of Chinese culture, history, psychology, and interests, the statesman successfully persuaded the former adversary to join the “united front” of containing the Soviets. The past relations between Kissinger and Mao held the same (if not more) opportunities for face-to-face diplomacy as the present relations between Biden and Xi. However, all of the substantial issues are yet to become a real game. Analyzing the signals carefully, taking pragmatic wisdom, and preparing for tough decision-making and real diplomacy will be necessary.


  • Holmes, Marcus. 2013. “The Force of Face-to-Face Diplomacy: Mirror Neurons and the Problem of Intentions.” International Organization 67 (4). Cambridge University Press: 829–61. doi:10.1017/S0020818313000234.
  • Holmes, Marcus, and Nicholas J. Wheeler. 2020. “Social Bonding in Diplomacy.” International Theory 12 (1). Cambridge University Press: 133–61. doi:10.1017/S1752971919000162.
  • Wong, Seanon S. 2015. “Emotions and the Communication of Intentions in Face-To-Face Diplomacy.” European Journal of International Relations 22 (1): 144–67. https://doi.org/10.1177/1354066115581059.
  • Macneil, Ian R. 1980. The New Social Contract an Inquiry into Modern Contractual Relations. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Russett, Bruce, and Miles Lackey. 1987. “In the Shadow of the Cloud: If There’s No Tomorrow, Why Save Today?” Political Science Quarterly 102 (2): 259–72. https://doi.org/10.2307/2151352.


Yaqi Li

Yaqi Li is an undergraduate majoring in International Relations at the School of International Studies, Jinan University. He is also serving as a research assistant in a China-based think tank, Intellisia Institute. He also serves as a researcher at Oxford China Public Affairs and International Relations Association. Yaqi has published several articles on America Watch of the Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University. His research interests include Sino-US Relations, US East Asia Policy, and Overseas Chinese Studies.