The leaders of the two most radical world powers have finally found time for a virtual summit. United States (US) President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping had their much-anticipated summit this week and spoiled each other, with neither side completely relinquishing its diplomatic cards.
Shadowboxing between the two powers in recent years is reminiscent of the Cold War regions of the US and the former Soviet Union. But the fact that the Biden-Xi summit took place at all can be considered an achievement, given the dramatic decline in their bilateral ties. Compared to the accusations that flew when officials from the two countries met in March earlier this year, the presidential conversation seemed more civilized.
The two leaders reminisced about their previous relationship, with Biden suggesting that the two “had always communicated very honestly and candidly with each other”, adding “we never walk away and wonder what the other guy is thinking”. Xi was happy to see his “old friend” Biden and called for the “need to increase communication and cooperation” as “humanity lives in a global village and we face multiple challenges together.”
This facade of courtesy failed to hide the fact that the two nations entered a dangerous phase in their bilateral relationship as the structural reality of a power transition began to shape their movements and counter-movements towards each other.
China, under Xi Jinping, sees itself as a power that has become a peer of the US and wants its place under the sun, in the process of exposing its aggressive intentions. The US is trying to maintain its preeminent global status and is struggling to maintain strategic coherence amid domestic dysfunction. Both know that how they interact will determine the future global role of their country.
Domestic concerns have intensified in recent months for both leaders. Biden’s honeymoon ended as quickly as it began. His polls are falling, Democrats are divided and the recent election has rejuvenated Republicans. Economic news from China isn’t great right now and the world is pushing the country back on a number of fronts. Although Xi hasn’t left China for nearly two years, he rose to the top after the main Plenum of the Communist Party of China (CPC) last week reaffirmed his absolute control of the party as its “pilot”, making him the number one became second most powerful. leader in the country’s recent history after Mao Zedong.
During the three-and-a-half-hour summit, Biden touched upon a range of controversial issues, such as human rights violations against the Uyghur minority in western Xinjiang province and Tibet, Chinese aggression against Taiwan and trade issues — all we’ve been told in one mind. of “healthy debate”. He underlined the “need to protect American workers and industries from the PRCs” [People’s Republic of China’s] unfair trade and economic practices”. Biden also raised the issue of transparency when it comes to dealing with pandemics such as Covid-19. The issue of Taiwan took a long time, with Biden emphasizing the importance of the “One China” policy while strongly opposing “unilateral attempts to change the status quo or restore peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” to undermine”.
The Chinese president threw the ball back to US court, ascribing tensions over Taiwan to “attempts by Taiwanese authorities to seek US support for their independence agenda and the intention of some Americans to use Taiwan to control China.” “Such movements are extremely dangerous, just like playing with fire. Whoever plays with fire will burn himself.” A sign of Beijing’s discomfort with new groups in the Indo-Pacific, such as the Quad, Xi pointed to the role of platforms that created “divisions” in the world.
In the midst of all this pushing and pulling, convergences were hard to find. Climate was an obvious area where the two nations had already jointly expressed their intention to reduce emissions at the COP26 meeting in Glasgow. Another area, but largely unconfirmed, is the tentative willingness of the two leaders to explore talks over strategic arms control. With China’s nuclear stockpile set to increase dramatically over the next decade, the challenge for the two nations will be to reset the terms of their nuclear engagement.
The tango between the US and China, like the rest of the world, has implications for India. As India struggles to contain China’s rise, ties to the US have blossomed. For the US, India is now a major hub player in the emerging geopolitical realities in the Indo-Pacific. Today, New Delhi is more confident than ever in maintaining its ties with Washington based on contemporary shifts. There are many in India who continue to advise India to proceed with caution as they relive old debates about “Chimerica” and “G-2”. But the reality has gone far beyond what those terms set out to achieve. This is a unique moment in today’s geopolitics, and India should continue to realize that it needs to be agile enough to adapt quickly to the changing external environment.
Harsh V Pant is Director, Studies and Head of Strategic Studies Program, ORF
The opinions expressed are personal