Managing the Troubled Sino-US Relationship
On November 14, a day before the G20 summit on the Indonesian island of Bali, China’s President Xi Jinping and US President, Joe Biden Jr. had a historic in-person meeting wherein the two presidents exchanged views on issues of strategic importance in China-US relations, and on major global and regional issues. In a sign of willingness and a hope to improve the souring relationship, both leaders instructed the teams from their two countries to follow up on the key consensuses reached by the two leaders and take concrete actions to push China-US relations back to a stable track.
Overview of the meeting
“As the leaders of our two nations, we share responsibility, in my view, to show that China and the United States can manage our differences, prevent competition from becoming anything ever near conflict, and to find ways to work together on urgent global issues that require our mutual cooperation,” Biden said to open the meeting.
Xi said he hoped they would “chart the right course for the China-US relationship” and that he was prepared for a “candid and in-depth exchange of views” with Biden.
In this substantial meeting, which was aimed at managing the differences between the superpowers as they compete for global influence amid increasing economic and security tensions, both leaders touched on several issues like war in Ukraine, military tension in the Taiwan Strait and North Korean missile tests. The closely watched meeting between the leaders of the world’s two largest economies was seen as a positive sign for the future of a relationship mired in tensions that have hurt global growth, but not much change is expected for trade.
In a presser following the three-hour-long meeting, President Biden said he was “open and candid” with Xi about the range of matters where Beijing and Washington disagree.
“It’s difficult to say that I’m certain that China could control North Korea”. But he also told Mr Xi that China had “an obligation” to dissuade Pyongyang from engaging in another nuclear weapons test.
With US-China tensions escalating in recent years, Biden said he wanted to ensure that the vigorous competition did not veer towards a conflict and that he was not looking for a new Cold War, while Xi said that the current state of bilateral relations was not in the interest of the two nations. They also agreed to deepen channels of communication across domains between the two countries — Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken will travel to Beijing to continue the discussions — and collaborate where possible, including on the climate crisis.
In subsequent remarks to the press, Biden said that the two leaders understood each other, and that his biggest concern was that there ought to be no “misunderstanding” about intentions and actions. Biden said he had been “very blunt,” and meant what he said and said what he meant to Xi.
When asked whether he found Xi more confrontational or conciliatory, after consolidating power at home, Biden said he found Xi “direct and straightforward” as he had always been. “Do I think he is willing to compromise on various issues? Yes. He understands that… I think the election held in the US has sent a very strong message around the world that the United States is ready to play.”
Relations have grown more strained under successive US administrations, as economic, trade, human rights and security differences have come to the fore.
As president, Biden has repeatedly taken China to task for human rights abuses against the Uighur people and other ethnic minorities, crackdowns on democracy activists in Hong Kong, coercive trade practices, military provocations against self-ruled Taiwan and differences over Russia’s prosecution of its war against Ukraine.
Chinese officials have largely refrained from public criticism of Russia’s war, although Beijing has avoided direct support, such as supplying arms.
Taiwan has emerged as one of the most contentious issues between Washington and Beijing.
Multiple times in his presidency, Biden has said the US would defend the island – which China has eyed for eventual unification – in case of a Beijing-led invasion.
Tensions flared even higher when US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August, prompting China to retaliate with military drills and the firing of ballistic missiles into nearby waters.
The Biden administration also blocked exports of advanced computer chips to China in October – a national security move that bolsters US competition against Beijing. Chinese officials quickly condemned the restrictions.
Before the meeting, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning had said China was committed to peaceful coexistence but would firmly defend its sovereignty, security and development interests.
“It is important that the US work together with China to properly manage differences, advance mutually beneficial cooperation, avoid misunderstanding and miscalculation, and bring China-US relations back to the right track of sound and steady development,” she said at a briefing in Beijing.
Here are some takeaways from this meeting:
1. Positive vibes
The move of “sitting down to talk” between the leaders of China and the US sends a positive signal that can help ease the tension of the situation. Both Biden and Xi stated that they sought ways to get along despite their differences. As one of the most important bilateral ties in the world, China-US relations are encountering unprecedented difficulties. Not only China and the US, but also the Asia-Pacific region and the whole world are feeling the increasing pressure and potential risks. It has become an increasingly strong common aspiration of the international community to promote China-US relations to return to the right track of healthy and stable development at an early date. This is also the historical responsibility entrusted by the current international situation and the reality of China-US relations to both countries. In this regard, President Biden tweeted: “We discussed our responsibility to prevent the competition between our countries from veering into conflict and finding ways to work together on shared challenges that affect the international community.”
2. Taiwan issue unresolved
The most thorny topic US president raised in the meeting was US objections to China’s “coercive and increasingly aggressive actions” towards Taiwan, which he said undermined peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and jeopardised global prosperity. Xi told Biden that the Taiwan question was at the “very core of China’s core interests” and the “first red line” in bilateral ties that must not be crossed. President Xi had, in the past, rebuked what he termed “foreign interference” in Taiwan and said China would never renounce the right to use force to unite the island with the mainland. He said he hoped the United States would match its words with action and abide by the one-China policy. It is important to note here that the United States does not recognize the island as independent but has pledged to help it defend itself. However, the two leaders have expressed their commitment to maintaining the peace and stability in the Taiwan Straits,” Biden said – a phrase that Washington uses all the time to say that it wants to keep the status quo. Biden further added that he does not see an “imminent” attempt being prepared against Taiwan.
3. Revival of communication
Beijing had halted a series of formal dialogue channels with Washington – including on climate change and military-to-military talks – after Nancy Pelosi’s August trip to Taiwan. However, military exchanges and communication may soon resume after a suspension of several months, and the two militaries may already be in contact at the working level. In Biden’s briefing, he said that National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, as well as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin would “be engaging with their counterparts from China. Moreover, although there have been fewer than usual senior-level visits between the two counties in recent years – due largely to China’s strict Covid-19 prevention measures – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken would travel to China to follow up on the leaders’ meeting. As per the State Department, the visit could happen early next year.
4. Climate cooperation might resume
Going into the talks, the White House said there was little in the way of concrete deliverables expected. One, though, was to restart cooperation between Washington and Beijing on non-controversial topics where their massive resources and global heft make them key players.
There was some success in this with plans to revive joint work on steering the world to meet UN global warming reduction targets. China had broken off these links out of anger over US support for the self-ruling, democratic government in Taiwan.
Biden talked of working “together on urgent global issues that require our mutual cooperation”.
Xi declared that “humanity is confronted with unprecedented challenges” and said “the world expects China and US to properly handle our relationship”.
The leaders said they would “empower key senior officials” on areas of potential cooperation, including tackling the climate crisis, and maintaining global financial, health and food stability.”
5. No nuclear use in Ukraine
Much has been made of what once seemed to be a budding alliance between Russia and China, which both often complain that the United States seeks to dominate the world, instead of accepting their own “multipolar” vision.
Once President Vladimir Putin launched his devastating invasion of Ukraine in February, speculation soared over what kind of political, economic and even military support China would lend. The answer, so far, has been not a great deal ― certainly not what Putin might want.
In the Bali talks, Biden and Xi agreed that one area where the Kremlin will not get support is in Putin’s threatened use of nuclear weapons. They “underscored their opposition to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine,” the US said in the readout. According to the US statement, the leaders also agreed that “a nuclear war should never be fought” and could not be won, “and underscored their opposition to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine”.
6. North Korea
On North Korea, Biden said he made it clear to Xi that China had an obligation to make sure North Korea did not resume nuclear testing, although it was difficult to determine if Xi had that influence.
“It’s difficult to determine whether or not China has the capacity. I’m confident China’s not looking for North Korea to engage in further escalatory means because I’ve made it clear and I made it clear from the very beginning and last year as well,” Biden told reporters.
At the same time, Biden warned Xi that such actions by North Korea would result in bolstered US and allied military capabilities in Northeast Asia.
In essence, Biden argued that North Korea’s provocations come at China’s expense, and therefore Beijing should exercise some of the leverage it has over Pyongyang to restrain them.
7. No cold war
The spirit of cooperation may have peaked in the declaration from both leaders that while disagreeing on much, they are not locked into an all-or-nothing conflict.
Xi told Biden that the two countries “share more, not less, common interests,” according to a Chinese account of the meeting.
Xi reportedly said Beijing does not seek to challenge the United States or “change the existing international order”.
Biden was adamant, saying he “absolutely” believes there “need not be a new Cold War”.
8. Capitalism vs socialism
The US cannot force China into practicing the political and economic systems of the West. Xi said there are “American-style democracy and Chinese-style democracy,” which fit their respective national conditions, and called for an end to the “democracy versus authoritarianism” narrative. While the United States is practicing capitalism, China is practicing socialism with the support of its 1.4 billion people and such a difference is nothing new and will continue to exist, Xi said. For China and the United States to get along, it is vital to recognize and respect such difference. Neither side should try to remould the other in one’s own image, or seek to change or even subvert the other’s system. Instead of talking in one way and acting in another, the United States needs to honour its commitments with concrete action.
The much-awaited meeting between the leaders of the world’s biggest economies has materialized. Biden, like his predecessor Donald Trump, is influenced by anti-China sentiments and pursuing protectionist policies in global trade due to widening income inequalities and declining manufacturing jobs at home. China, on the other hand, has been furious about US warships’ manoeuvres in the waters near Taiwan and strongly condemned US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to the island. In this backdrop, both leaders have met and this long-awaited rendezvous has relaxed and comforted the world’s tense emotions amid various crises and challenges. The consequences of a possible conflict between China and the United States have kept the international community at edge for long. Under such circumstances, the fact that the heads of state of China and the US can sit together and talk candidly is a positive signal to the outside world, whatever they have talked about. This is a general tone of international media reports on this meeting. Admittedly, while dealing with huge and complicated bilateral relationship, it is impossible to solve all problems with just one meeting, yet there is no need for the two economic and military superpowers to pursue each other’s destruction. In Xi’s words, “The world is big enough for the two countries to develop themselves and prosper together.” The meeting between the two heads of state in Bali showed that the two major powers still have many common views, thus providing more space and possibilities for the two sides to further properly manage divergences on specific issues and promote mutually beneficial cooperation.
The writer is an Islamabad-based academic.