Xi-Biden summit

Published November 17, 2022

THE recent one-on-one meeting between Xi Jinping and Joe Biden on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali reinforces the role personalised communication at the top level plays in global diplomacy. Though the Chinese and American leaders did not make any breakthroughs, the meeting did result in a significant climb-down in rhetoric from both sides. There were smiles and handshakes, as opposed to the combative rhetoric that had of recent been emanating from both capitals. However, though the high-level contact was positive, there should be no illusions about the trajectory the relationship between the world’s two top economies is taking: it is one of intense competition. The challenge before both is to manage this competition, and prevent it from escalating into confrontation. If the spirit on display in Bali is replicated, the status quo can be maintained. It was reassuring that Mr Biden said he was not interested in a new Cold War with China, while Mr Xi also struck a conciliatory tone when he observed that there was a need to “elevate the relationship”. Yet, there was also frank discussion about the respective red lines, with the Chinese leader stressing that Taiwan was “the first red line that must not be crossed”, while the US president was critical of China’s “aggressive actions towards Taiwan”. The mutual affirmation against the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine was also welcome.

From here, both sides need to continue their cautious engagement. The US should not fan Taiwanese independence aspirations, which will surely enflame nationalist sentiment in China, while Beijing must seek to resolve the Taiwan question peacefully. It is highly unlikely that an age of Sino-US bonhomie is on the horizon, with the Pentagon saying in its recent National Defence Strategy that China remains America’s most “consequential strategic competitor”. In order to keep this competition within manageable limits, both sides will have to make compromises and respect each other’s red lines, or else the unintended consequences of brinksmanship will have devastating effects on the global order.

Published in Dawn, November 17th, 2022

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