To transcend the tumult of the Trump years, the United States and China will have to shake off old burdens to discover new areas for engagement. The first conversation between their leaders, however, was mainly about marking limits. President Joe Biden underscored concerns about Beijing's coercive and unfair economic practices, crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and increasingly assertive actions in the region, including towards Taiwan. President Xi Jinping warned that Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang were internal affairs, related to China's sovereignty and territorial integrity, which the US should respect. But in Beijing's rendering of last week's call, there was an intriguing reference to a conversation when the two men were vice-presidents. Mr Xi recalled Mr Biden's remark that the US defined itself as a nation of "possibilities" and expressed hope that better bilateral relations were now a possibility, suggesting that Beijing and Washington meet each other halfway.
An impactful beginning can be made in Asia, where both remain on the trajectory of conflict amid intense military deployments around Taiwan and the South China Sea. Days after Mr Biden took office, Beijing staged a show of force towards Taiwan, while the US undertook large naval operations in the South China Sea. Even before his election, Mr Biden said he would rally democracies to confront China, while Beijing revealed last year that it had set its sights on military modernisation, to level up with the US, by 2027. While both pursue their security objectives, they can do much to build confidence in each other. The US can clarify that it will respect the "one China" policy, while Beijing needs to refrain from flexing its muscles over the Taiwan Strait. In the South China Sea, Beijing should also respect freedom of navigation and refrain from further militarisation around contested islands. The chances of calamitous accidental confrontations will be reduced with such steps.