America’s allies, strategic partners, the international business community and traders were eagerly watching the third conversation, but the first virtual summit, between US president Joe Biden and Chinese president Xi Jinping.
The Biden administration had repeatedly warned against high expectations or concrete deliverables and, in fact, the meeting turned out to be just a conversation between “old friends” over their critical differences over strategic, economic and political developments in recent years.
What is significant is both the leaders agreed that a new Cold War would be harmful for American and Chinese national interests as would be for the Indo-Pacific region and the world at large. President Xi Jinping harped on “win-win cooperation, peaceful co-existence, and mutual respect”.
However, President Biden highlighted the need to “manage strategic risks” and to develop “common-sense guardrails to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict.”
Given the domestic economic challenges China has been facing due to real estate crisis, energy shortages, state-owned companies’ defaulting on debt payment, foreign investors leaving China, Indo-Pacific countries seeking alternative supply chains, China’s hidden debt of trillions of dollars and the widely visible reduction of growth rate, it is understandable why there was a desperation on the part of President Xi to emphasise “win-win cooperation” that can restore normal economic ties between the two countries.
President Biden, on the other hand, empowered with Congressional support to his more than a trillion dollar infrastructure spending plan appeared in no hurry to end the “tariff war” until China would fulfil its promises to buy $200 billion worth of American goods by the end of the year.
The US so far has managed to limit the impact of the “tariff” war with China and has discovered that China is relatively a bigger loser. The psychological impact of the Wuhan virus episode and the Chinese aggressive military moves along the India-China border, South China Sea, East China Sea, and Taiwan Strait, moreover, has had a negative spillover effect on China’s traditional image of a congenial economic partner.
That China has been posing a robust challenge to the United States in matters of foreign aid, developmental assistance, foreign investments, including through the Belt and Road Initiative is undeniable. In addition, the US government does not have the constitutional power or the financial wherewithal to compete with the Chinese BRI. But the greatest strength of the US in global politics continues to be its leadership, its alliances, strategic partnerships and the unquestionable capability to fulfil its security commitments.
This is nowhere better echoed than in the dilemmas faced by countries that have alliance relationships with the United States but conduct maximum trade with China. They simply cannot desert their alliance partner for siding with China for economic benefits.
President Biden made the most of the available opportunity in the virtual summit with President Xi to portray the US as the security benefactor, upholder of the liberal international world order, champion of freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific region and a trust-worthy nation. His statements during the conversations with XI sought to calm the fears of allies that the US could fail in fulfilling the security commitments. The sudden departure of the US troops from Afghanistan has shown the US in a bad light among the American allies.
But Biden’s messages were strong. First, he said that the United States would, along with allies and partners, “ensure the rules of the road for the 21st Century” in an apparent response to Chinese activities in the South China Sea. Second, he raised American concerns over human rights violations in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong to register strong protest against the Xi government’s practices and policies.
Third, he expressed his unhappiness over Chinese “unfair trade and economic practices” and emphasised the “need to protect American workers and industries”. Fourth, he expressed the American determination to uphold the US commitments to protect the “freedom of navigation and safe over flight” in the Indo-Pacific region.
Last but not least, Biden sent a strong signal against China’s bullying and offensive military manoeuvres against Taiwan. In fact, unlike his predecessors, Biden has stood firmly in his opposition to use of force against Taiwan. He reiterated the US commitment to “one China” policy based on the Taiwan Relations Act, three joint communiqués issued with China and six assurances given to China by various US administrations.
But he made it amply clear that all those commitments are conditional upon China not making “unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait”. Before the summit, Biden had also openly stated that the US is committed to the defence of Taiwan against military aggression. Some analysts pointed out that Biden’s remarks were outside the traditional US policy of “strategic ambivalence”. The White House issued a statement that there is no change in US policy. But the fact remains that his statement actually made US commitment more “ambiguous” and kept China in confusion over possible US moves.
It is important to note that President Xi Jinping too appeared belligerent in his remarks on Taiwan. He said that China would be forced to “take resolute measures”, should the “separatist forces” seek “Taiwan Independence”, “provoke us, force our hands or even cross the red line”.
China reserves the right to use force to “unify” Taiwan with the Mainland. The United States upholds the commitment to intervene, if force is used to annex Taiwan. By implication, Taiwan remains a flashpoint for potential Sino-American armed conflict.
After the summit, no joint statements were announced. The White House issued a “Readout of President Biden’s Virtual Meeting with President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China”. Xinhua, meanwhile, highlighted the remarks made by President Xi in its published reports and the world would keep guessing what would happen next.
The summit was a good beginning. Dialogue between rivals, competitors and adversaries is always a welcome development. But whatever outcome — differently interpreted in Washington and Beijing — remains in the virtual domain, reality will slowly unfold.
The writer is professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views expressed are personal.