No breakthrough was expected during the first virtual summit between US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on November 15. Their first video exchange since the Biden administration took three and a half hours. It covered all the issues in which the world’s two superpowers compete, disagree, cooperate, clash and confront: trade, Taiwan, Iran, North Korea, technology, climate change, human rights and strategic weapons.
While no specific outcome emerged from these summit talks, it was clear that both sides sought this top-level interaction to ease tensions that had seemed to spiral out of control in recent months, pushing ties to an unprecedented and dangerous low. to deposit.
The attempted de-escalation has been a relief to the international community, which has become increasingly concerned about the deadlock between the two powers, as it has far-reaching implications for them, the global economy and international stability. Most countries want to avoid getting caught in the crosshairs of this confrontation and don’t want to be forced to make a choice between them, especially since many, including America’s European allies, have important economic interests in ties with Beijing. .
The Biden-Xi talks marked a recognition by both sides of the need to manage tensions and explore areas where they could work together amid what Biden calls “extreme competition.” At the outset, the US president made clear to Xi that their responsibility obligated them to ensure that competition “is not conflicted, intentionally or unintentionally”. China, for its part, has always maintained that it wants to stabilize and improve relations, while also indicating that it would push back hard on provocative US actions.
In his opening address, Xi told Biden that “the world’s two largest economies need to improve communication and cooperation” and called for a “healthy and stable” relationship. Since taking office, Biden has taken a hard line on China, indistinguishable from the policies of his predecessor Donald Trump, with the US imposing sweeping trade tariffs on Chinese exports, using aggressive rhetoric and taking steps Beijing deemed provocative. .
This crackdown has been prompted by Washington’s growing fear of the growing global economic, military and technological might of a rival superpower. Biden’s stance also reflects the political consensus in the US that views China as an adversary to be contained, not fought alone.
This notion urged his administration to take measures in recent months that bolstered Beijing’s belief that the US under Biden was pursuing a strategy to contain China. In September 2021, Washington forged a new trilateral security pact with the UK and Australia,
AUKUS, aimed at bolstering Australia’s naval forces through nuclear-powered submarines to counter China’s military ascendancy in the Western Pacific. Shortly afterwards, the White House hosted leaders of the so-called Quad – made up of the US, Australia, Japan and India – to bolster an anti-Chinese coalition among regional states.
These measures were denounced by Beijing as a threat to regional peace and security. In the virtual summit, Xi warned of the dangerous consequences for global peace of dividing the world into different camps. The November 15 meeting appeared to address security and geopolitical issues, although other issues were also discussed. Understandable, given that they have caused the recent spike in tensions. One area reportedly making modest progress involved their nuclear arsenals.
The Financial Times called this a breakthrough, but that exaggerates the apparent agreement that has been reached to hold talks about “strategic stability” to reduce the risk of nuclear conflict. However, this could be jeopardized by last week’s US move to blacklist a dozen Chinese companies, ostensibly for “national security” reasons, for supporting the development efforts of the Chinese military.
Taiwan was one of the most thorny topics discussed at the meeting, with the Chinese leader warning the US of a strong response if Beijing’s red line is crossed to encourage “separatist troops” in Taiwan. Xi characterized this as “playing with fire”. Biden conveyed the US stance, reflected in the statement later issued by the White House, of opposing “unilateral attempts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” — a reference to China’s military movements in the area.
The US itself has stepped up its military presence and sent warships to the region. This fraught situation has raised concerns among regional states and prompted warnings from leaders, most notably Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong, about the risk of a military clash due to miscalculation between the US and China.
While the US reiterated its commitment to a “one China” policy at the meeting, Biden’s decision to invite Taiwan to the democracy summit next month is another provocative move that has already heightened tensions with Beijing.
A rather lackluster US statement on the reading of the Biden-Xi meeting gave little indication of how Washington expects relations to evolve, other than reiterating “the importance of responsible management of competition,” albeit an important one. In contrast, China’s statement 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 outlined are leading the global response to pressing challenges, multi-level exchanges to expand cooperation, managing differences to avoid ties, and improving cooperation on major international issues.
The key question now is whether relations between the two countries will gradually stabilize. Much will depend on whether the Biden administration will continue to pursue a policy of containment of China that stems from an entrenched Washington vision that sees China as a strategic adversary and challenge. It also depends on how accommodating an increasingly assertive China will be one of the top US priorities. What’s hard to determine is how to handle an established superpower’s growing insecurity as she sees and feels uneasy about its global dominance challenged by the world’s newest superpower.
As Henry Kissinger recently said, at this historic turning point, the fate of the world may well be determined by the relationship between the US and China.