Monday’s three-hour meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping was more important than it first appears.
No treaty has been signed, no dispute has been settled. But the leaders of the world’s two most powerful nations have shown they see the need to step back from the confrontation, which some came to see how inevitable– and resume diplomacy, marked by suspicion or outright hostility for some time.
The question is whether the two sides can shed their mutual enmity and negotiate peaceful agreements without conceding vital principles. So far, the tone of the Xi-Biden mini-summit — their first face-to-face meeting since becoming presidents of their countries — was encouraging, from warm smiles from their greetings to the exceptionally sweet rhetoric of their “readings”. (These are the official government summaries of what they talked about.)
Biden took office nearly two years ago convinced that US-China relations had evolved from a committed partnership to strategic competition. He touted a new covenant called the Quadruple– a group of countries including the United States, Japan, Australia and India – to contain Chinese expansion in the Pacific. His National Security Strategya document released earlier this month, went further and described China as “the only competitor intent on both reshaping the international order and, increasingly, economic, diplomatic, military and technological to advance this objective”.
For his part, Xi, in a speech as early as 2013 portrayed the United States and its Western allies as determined to “overthrow the leadership” of the Chinese Communist Party “and the Chinese socialist system.”
However, in recent months, the two leaders have realized that they need each other to thrive. The United States cannot protect its global interests when it is in a state of war or cold war with both Russia and China – and further detente with Russia is impossible as long as the war in Ukraine rages on, perhaps as long as Vladimir Putin is in power.
And Xi seems to have realized that his “limitless” partnership with Moscow – an alliance of convenience he touted with Putin late last year in an effort to weaken the United States and divide the West – is a game with higher risk and less risk. advantages than he expected, given Russia’s dramatic downturns on the battlefield, at home and in the international community.
For all their conflicting ideals, Biden and Xi are political pragmatists. They recognize their mutual dependencies – China as a source of critical supplies, the United States as a buyer of these supplies and many consumer goods – and now see the impracticality of isolation as a tactic, at least in the short term. . And so, as their predecessors did with varying degrees of enthusiasm or weariness, they turned to each other – in this case during a side-discussion at the G-20 summit in Bali, in Indonesia. (These summits, of the top 20 industrial powers, are generally useless — the group is too big to do much more than boilerplate draft statements — except as forums where a handful of leaders can talk seriously in parallel.)
According to Written summary of the meeting of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Xi told Biden that “the current state of China-US relations is not in the fundamental interests of the two countries”, which have a “responsibility” to “explore the right way to get along” and to put the relationship on a “path of health and stable growth”. Xi further advocated resolving differences through “dialogue and win-win cooperation, not confrontation and zero-sum competition.”
The White House Reading noted that Biden and Xi “stressed their opposition to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine” – an uncompromising hint that China’s partnership with Russia has limits after all. In a press conference after the meeting, Biden told reporters, “I absolutely believe there is no need for a new Cold War” with China, and Xi agreed — another thumbs-down at Putin, who was hoping that its opening to the east would support its fight with the West.
The two leaders also agreed to establish (in some cases re-establish) long dormant working groups on specific issues – such as climate change, debt relief and global food security – and to give senior officials who lead these groups the means to maintain communications.
As if the signal, US climate envoy John Kerry met for 45 minutes with his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, on Tuesday at the UN climate summit in Egypt. Among other things, they agreed to resume bilateral climate talks, which Beijing suspended last summer after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial trip to Taiwan. It was also announced that Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit Beijing for the first time next year.
Still, Biden said at his press conference, “I’m not suggesting it’s ‘Kumbaya. disagree on a lot of things.
These disagreements were also frankly discussed during the three-hour meeting. For example, Xi pointed out that “the Taiwan issue is at the very core of China’s core interests, the bedrock of the political foundation of China-US relations, and the first red line that should not be crossed.” Biden reportedly replied that he recognizes “one China” and does not support Taiwanese “independence”; but he has previously and publicly stated, on four occasions, that the United States would help defend Taiwan against Beijing’s aggression, thus reversing Washington’s longstanding position of “Strategic Ambiguity” more confusing than clarifying.
The Chinese statement also contained a good deal of what Biden, in more local contexts, might call “malarkey.” For example: China’s foreign and domestic policies are “open and transparent…promoting the construction of an open global economy”. And: “freedom, democracy and human rights are the common pursuit of mankind and also the unswerving pursuit of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party].” In fact, as Biden and many others have pointed out too emphatically for Xi’s liking, China trades behind closed doors, routinely steals intellectual property, suppresses grassroots democratic movements, and violates the human rights of millions of its citizens.
The statement also recited several vaguely earthy euphemisms. For example: “China has a democracy with Chinese characteristics” and “specific differences between the two sides can be resolved through discussion, but only under the precondition of equality”. It basically means “stop bothering us about human rights”.
And: “We oppose the politicization of the militarization of economic and trade ties” – which means: “Do not try to disconnect from our supply chains”. On Ukraine: “China has always stood on the side of peace and will continue to encourage peace talks.” This means: “We are not exactly helping the Russians in this war, but we are not siding with you against them either.” And in response to Biden’s plea for help in pressuring North Korea to stop its nuclear weapons program: Umm, the Chinese statement says nothing.
These are of course the most contentious issues between the United States and China. The Xi-Biden meeting, while cordial and productive, did not shed light on the path to compromise, let alone resolution.
In a toned article in the current issue of Foreign AffairsKevin Rudd, president of the Asia Society and former Australian prime minister and foreign minister, says Xi is a “true supporter” of a “new form of Marxist nationalism” that “puts China on the right side of the history and portrays the United States as struggling in the throes of inevitable capitalist decline. This is why Xi scuttled the “pragmatic and non-ideological governance” of China under his predecessors, Deng Xiaoping and Hu Jintao, and his pursuit of an “increasingly assertive foreign policy.” Rudd argues that Xi “will not abandon his ideology” and that the West must respond by re-embracing its own liberal democratic principles.
However, Rudd also notes that Xi’s worldview has an “Achilles’ heel,” the economy, which is stagnating for several reasons. One of the tenets of his Marxist ideology – an expansion of state-owned enterprises and a repression of private enterprise – has already triggered a downturn. Then there are several “structural trends: a rapidly aging population, a shrinking workforce, low productivity growth and high debt levels”.
Xi has not recognized, and may not detect, his own role in this stagnation; he did not order any policy cancellations. But he must be aware of his country’s economic difficulties, which is another reason why he sees the need for re-engagement with the West, at least for now. “Under the current circumstances,” its foreign ministry said of the Xi-Biden meeting, “China and the United States share more, not less, common interests.”
Both leaders seem sincerely eager to seize the moment and advance those interests together, if only for the reason that they cannot advance those interests separately. The moment may not last long, but seizing it – optimistically, but with eyes wide open – is better than the alternative. Biden and Xi both seem to enjoy this.