Financial markets across the world got a boost on November 16 just because two world leaders, US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, exchanged friendly words keeping their irreconcilable issues on the back burner for the while.
Not much was expected to be achieved at the first virtual summit between them since Biden took oath of office early this year, but nobody thought the causticity would only barely be hidden by a thin veneer of civility.
For the record, the virtual summit – it could not be in-person because Xi has not stepped out of China since the Covid-19 outbreak – carried on for three and a half hours during which Xi referred to Biden as “my old friend”. That was the thaw the world media referred to later.
There was no conflict both sides were heading to and there is none to head to after the talks. It is a status quo ante. Both leaders got a measure of each other. After all, they were seeing each other, albeit on tv screens, for the first time after two previous telephonic conversations and had physically met the last time when both were serving as vice-presidents under Brack Obama and Hu Jintao.
The lack of a verbal drama during the “summit” was enough for analysts to contend that both Xi and Biden would be less nationalistic in their future approaches and more amenable to compromise. There is no idea where the assumption germinates from.
There simply are two things Xi and Biden wanted from each other, and knew the climate is too hot for either of them to concede an inch. One, from Xi’s point of view, is getting the old US policy on China, that is before the Trump presidency, back on track.
China’s Global Times elaborated in its editorial: “Since the previous US administration, Washington’s China policy has been keeping steering away from the rational track, with the Cold War-like confrontational mentality prevailing. The US ratcheted up manoeuvres, including advocating high-tech decoupling, economic sanctions and strengthening ties with allies to confront China. These moves seriously jeopardized the previous atmosphere between China and the US. They also reinforced people’s worries about strategic confrontation and conflicts between China and the US.”
The CNN countered no less affectionately: “The affable greetings eventually turned more serious as Biden raised concerns about human rights, Chinese aggression toward Taiwan and trade issues. Throughout, the leaders engaged in a ‘healthy debate’, according to a senior administration official present for the discussions. ‘I don’t think the purpose was particularly to ease tensions, or that that was the result. We want to make sure the competition is responsibly managed, that we have ways to do that. The President’s been quite clear he’s going to engage in that stiff competition,’ the senior administration official said afterward.”
Anyway, patience paid off at the summit meeting, vexed as both sides are with a trade and tariff war, military tensions, human rights and the ubiquitous Coronavirus outbreak that led their ties to the nadir in the last two years.
The tensions are not easing primarily because the United States under Donald Trump stopped pretending to be friends with China and started a trade war. The Biden administration is taking that forward, converting it into a one-on-one competition with China. In that sense, there has been no change in the US policy on China over two presidencies. If Biden gave any indication, it is that the US policy has indeed changed a bit, viewing China more as a risky competitor than as a distant, global rival.
After the two leaders recalled the friendly jousts of theirs in the past, the gloves came off. The United States said it stood by the One China policy but Biden was quoted by the White House as telling Xi that it “strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait”.
China saw red at that, with Xi saying the Americans encouraging Taiwanese independence would be “playing with fire”. For China, Taiwan is nothing more than a breakaway province. Global Times in fact said “Xi blamed recent tensions on ‘repeated attempts by the Taiwan authorities to look for US support for their independence agenda as well as the intention of some Americans to use Taiwan to contain China’”. The paper said: “Such moves are extremely dangerous, just like playing with fire. Whoever plays with fire will get burnt.” The goodwill at the beginning of the summit perhaps exhausted itself at this point.
The next opportunity the two leaders may get to meet each other physically is if Xi invites, and Biden accepts, his counterpart to come to Beijing for the Winter Olympics next February. The event itself has been mired in controversy with human rights activists wanting it to be called off because of rights violations by China in Xinjiang. Left to themselves, neither of them would be to keen to meet so quickly after the virtual meeting, besotted as they are with their separate, internal crises.
For Biden, the millstone is in the form of the midterm election next November when all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 34 of the 100 seats in the Senate will be contested. It will nearly be a referendum on his term and, depending on how he staves off a determined Trump bid to return, will determine the fate of a second term.
Secondly, and closer than the distant elections, Biden will be at his strident best as he addresses his Summit For Democracy next month which will bring together leaders from government, civil society, and the private sector to set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies today through collective action. The following year, there will be a second such summit Biden will address.
Between the two summits, Biden would have told the world what he thinks of China and what democracies should do to counter the increasingly assertive country. He will be baring his teeth on China more for the benefit of his country’s audience but that is bound to have repercussions from China. In addition, he has to contend with Trump over the Afghanistan debacle apart from domestic political and economic distress.
Xi, on the other hand, has enough reason to feel buoyed as he come out of the sixth plenum of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, having been made the “core” of the party like Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping before him. He is virtually unchallenged as he enters 2022 to face the 20th party congress that is sure to award him the presidency for the third term.
The South China Morning Post, obliquely talked of the innermost thinking of the Chinese leadership vis-à-vis the competition-with-US: “Without mentioning any country, it enshrined Xi’s calls for greater fighting spirit in the face of perceived bullying by the West as part of the party’s most ‘valuable historical experience’ over the past century. ‘These efforts have resulted in a marked increase in China’s international influence, appeal, and power to shape,’ the document said, without elaboration.”
It is back to usual after the summit.