NO breakthrough was expected in the first virtual summit meeting between US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Nov 15. Their first exchange by video since the advent of the Biden administration lasted three and a half hours. It ranged over all the issues on which the world’s two superpowers compete, disagree, collaborate, clash and confront each other — trade, Taiwan, Iran, North Korea, technology, climate change, human rights and strategic weapons. Although no specific outcome emerged from these summit talks it was clear that both sides sought this interaction at the highest level to defuse tensions that seemed to spin out of control in the past several months and sent ties plunging to an unprecedented and perilous low.
The effort at de-escalation came as relief to the international community increasingly concerned about the stand-off between the two powers as this involves far-reaching consequences for them, the global economy and international stability. Most countries want to avoid being caught in the cross hairs of this confrontation and do not want to be forced to make a choice between them especially as many, including America’s European allies, have important economic stakes in ties with Beijing.
The Biden-Xi talks marked an acknowledgement by both sides of the need to manage tensions and explore areas where they could cooperate amid what Biden calls “extreme competition”. At the very outset, the American president conveyed to Xi that responsibility obliged them to ensure that competition “does not veer into conflict, whether intended or unintended”. China for its part, has always maintained it wants to stabilise and improve relations while also signalling it would push back hard against provocative US actions. In his opening remarks, Xi told Biden “the world’s two largest economies need to increase communication and cooperation” and he called for a “sound and steady” relationship.
Will relations stabilise or remain hostage to US insecurity over the rise of a rival superpower?
Since Biden assumed office, he has pursued a tough line on China, quite indistinguishable from his predecessor Donald Trump’s policy that saw the US impose wide-ranging trade tariffs on Chinese exports, adopt aggressive rhetoric and take steps seen as provocative by Beijing. This hard-line approach has been driven by Washington’s growing fear of a rival superpower’s rising global economic, military and technological power. Biden’s stance also reflects the political consensus in the US that views China as an adversary to be contained and not just competed against.
This thinking urged his administration towards moves in recent months that reinforced Beijing’s belief that the US under Biden was continuing with a strategy to contain China. In September 2021, Washington forged a new trilateral security pact with the UK and Australia, AUKUS, aimed at enhancing Australia’s naval power by nuclear-powered submarines to counter China’s military ascendancy in the western Pacific. Soon after, the White House hosted leaders of the so-called Quad — comprising US, Australia, Japan and India — to cement an anti-China coalition among regional states. These moves were denounced by Beijing as a threat to regional peace and security. In the virtual summit President Xi warned of the dangerous consequences for global peace of dividing the world into different camps.
The Nov 15 meeting appeared to zero in on security and geopolitical issues even though other matters were also discussed. Understandably, as they have driven the recent spike in tensions. An area that reportedly saw modest progress concerned their nuclear arsenals. The Financial Times called this a breakthrough but that overplays the apparent agreement reached on holding ‘strategic stability’ talks aimed at reducing the risk of nuclear conflict. This may however be imperilled by last week’s US action of placing a dozen Chinese companies on a blacklist ostensibly on ‘national security’ grounds because they aid the Chinese military’s development efforts.
Taiwan was among the thorniest issues discussed during the meeting, with the Chinese leader warning the US of a strong response if Beijing’s red line was crossed i.e. encouraging “separatist forces” in Taiwan. Xi characterised this as “playing with fire”. Biden conveyed the US position, reflected in the statement later issued by the White House, of opposition to “unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” — a reference to China’s military movements in the area. The US has itself been stepping up its military presence and sending warships to the region. This fraught situation has aroused concerns among regional states and prompted warnings from leaders, notably Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong, about the risk of a military clash due to miscalculation between the US and China. Although the US restated its commitment to a ‘one China’ policy in the meeting, Biden’s decision to invite Taiwan to its Summit on Democracy next month is another provocative move that has already accentuated tensions with Beijing.
A rather bland US statement of its readout of the Biden-Xi meeting gave little indication of how Washington expects relations to evolve, other than reiterating “the importance of managing competition responsibly”, albeit a significant goal. The statement issued by China, on the other hand, clarified Beijing’s framework for improving ties. Xi identified three principles and four priorities for China-US cooperation. The three principles to guide future relations were mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation. The four priorities he set out are leading the global response to pressing challenges, exchanges at multiple levels to expand cooperation, managing differences to prevent derailment of ties and enhancing collaboration on major international issues.
The key question now is whether relations will gradually stabilise between the two countries. Much will depend on whether the Biden administration will continue to follow a contain-China policy that flows from a deeply entrenched Washington view that sees China as a strategic adversary and challenge. It also depends on how accommodating an increasingly assertive China will be of key US priorities. What is hard to determine is how the growing insecurity of an established superpower can be addressed when it sees and is discomforted by its global dominance being challenged by the world’s newest superpower. As Henry Kissinger recently put it, at this historic turning point, the fate of the world may well be decided by the relationship between the US and China.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.
Published in Dawn, November 29th, 2021