The only breakthrough that can be attributed to the virtual meeting between US and Chinese presidents, Joe Biden and Xi Jinping, on Monday/Tuesday, is that there has been an easing of visa restrictions for the two countries’ accredited journalists. But here too, a caveat should be made, namely that “a three-point consensus on their visa policy” was actually reached just before the virtual meeting, at the official level.
But don’t look for concrete results in summits. An important Beijing commentary from the Xinhua news agency is full of pious anticipation, yet describes the virtual meeting as “productive” enough. In the inventory of the virtual meeting, the only conclusion can be that, as the old saying goes, ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink.’
Biden wanted to schedule this meeting earlier. As of mid-August, the stars were not aligned for Biden. The chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent beatings he received in the ring road; the ensuing disorder in the transatlantic alliance; America’s allies increasingly fear that he could become a one-term presidency; rising tensions with Russia over Ukraine and NATO’s eastward move; the precipitous drop in Biden’s rating in the US opinion – all this added up.
Meanwhile, inflation is on the rise and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen publicly acknowledged that import duties from China are contributing to the sharp price hikes. All in all, when the Biden presidency claimed at the April Alaska meeting with top Chinese officials that they would negotiate with China from a strong position, as the virtual summit approached this week, the general impression was that he had a weak hand.
A USA Today poll earlier this month put Biden’s approval rating below 38%. On the eve of the Biden-Xi meeting, a Politico/Morning Consult poll showed that 44% of voters approved of Biden’s job as president, but 58% disagreed with the statement “Joe Biden is capable of running the country.” lead”.
The nerves are tense. The White House spokesman even insisted Biden was not really an “old friend” of Xi, as the latter keeps repeating. The Washington Post isn’t sure if Xi will continue to use the seductive phrase as “an expression of affection or an unwanted nickname.”
The real significance of Tuesday’s meeting is that, as WaPo estimated, it “allowed the two global superpowers to deal with a whole host of sensitive issues that have strained ties… But the deal was (also) an acknowledgment.” that conflicts … can have serious consequences around the world.”
In brief remarks to reporters at the White House before the summit, Biden told Xi: “As I said before, it seems our responsibility – as leaders of China and the United States – to ensure that competition between our countries not conflict, intentionally or unintentionally. Just simple, clear competition. It seems to me that we need to put up a common sense guardrail, to be clear and honest where we disagree and work together where our interests intersect, especially on vital global issues such as climate change.”
By contrast, Xi – fresh off the historic CCP Central Committee plenary that lined him up with Mao and Deng in the pantheon of party leaders – pointed to the need to improve “communication and cooperation” between the two countries and offered that he was ready to work with Biden to “build consensus, take active steps and move China-US relations in a positive direction.”
That said, Xi firmly pulled the red line to Taiwan, where the two leaders had an “extensive” discussion. The White House reading said the US is “strongly opposed to unilateral attempts to change the status quo”. But according to the much longer Chinese version of Xinhua (2,875 words), Xi noted “the new wave of tensions across the Taiwan Strait, and attributed the tensions to the repeated attempts by Taiwanese authorities to seek US support for their independence agenda. as well as the intention of some Americans to use Taiwan to contain China. Such movements are extremely dangerous, just like playing with fire. Whoever plays with fire will burn himself.”
Xi added: “We are patient and will pursue the prospect of peaceful reunification with utmost sincerity and effort. That said, if the separatist forces for the independence of Taiwan provoke us, force our hands or even cross the red line, we will be forced to take decisive action.”
Xi ruled out a compromise. According to Xinhua, Biden reaffirmed the US government’s long-standing one-China policy, stated that the US does not support “Taiwan independence”, and expressed the hope that peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait will be preserved. US is ready to work with China on the basis of mutual respect and peaceful coexistence, improve communication, reduce misconceptions and deal constructively with differences.”
The future course of the relationship will undoubtedly depend almost entirely on how the US calibrates its stance. Beijing showed its mettle when six Chinese planes entered the so-called air defense zone of Taiwan just hours before the meeting.
During the three-and-a-half-hour meeting, many cases were apparently taken care of. US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Biden “raised the need for strategic stability discussions and that they must be “led by leaders”. Overall, Sullivan tried to portray that the relationship is one of “steady state” competition. in which lines of communication remain open, while the US works with allies and partners “to confront China where it is necessary” and cooperate where “our interests … intersect.”
The Chinese assessment is clearly more hopeful. A Xinhua report in People’s Daily highlighted that the two leaders agreed “under a serious, global look” on a productive virtual meeting… to get the… relationship back on track. The encouraging consensus, along with other positive results… provided a much-needed dose of optimism.”
However, it went on to say, “It is high time the United States started acting in a truly responsible manner… A responsible Washington should maintain mutual respect with China with all its heart… It means that the two countries should treat each other as equals and respect each other’s social system and development path, core interests and major concerns, as well as the right to development… What is especially necessary now is that the United States… should stop playing with fire on the Taiwan issue, the most important and most sensitive issue in relations between China and the US No provocation or threat would make China move even an inch.
The commentary added: “Washington must take concrete steps to prove that its call to properly manage US-China ties and proclamation not to restrain China is a strategic choice rather than a tactical move. ” The lack of confidence is palpable.
The bottom line is that the dysfunctional phase of the US-China relationship may be coming to an end. The main priorities identified during the meeting will certainly be followed up. The government newspaper China Daily expressed confidence that the meeting “will bring stability to bilateral relations and kick-start an intensified engagement”.
Chinese commentators hope that, given growing domestic inflationary pressures and falling approval ratings for Biden for his approach to the economy, Washington is eager to work with Beijing by further easing tariffs and related trade issues.
On trade relations, Xi described economic and trade relations between China and the US as mutually beneficial in nature and the two sides should “make the pie bigger” through cooperation. It is expected that after the summit, there will be more channels to strengthen communication and cooperation in China.
Two dozen US business associations have urged the Biden administration to cut tariffs on Chinese goods to ease Americans amid rising inflation, arguing that the tariffs introduced in recent years continue to disproportionately cause economic damage. to American companies, farmers, workers and families.
The influential US-China Business Council is hopeful that separate meetings will soon be scheduled to discuss economic and trade issues, while stressing that “economic and trade relations have been a burden on the relationship and can help manage strategic risks. “
MKBHADRAKUMAR is retired from the Indian Foreign Service.