The world can breathe a little easier after US President Joe Biden’s talks with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Monday.
But the two 21st century superpowers are still on a collision course.
The summit in Indonesia yielded two important outcomes, according to the US: A joint position that Russia must not use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine and an expected resumption of talks on climate between American and Chinese negotiators, a boost for the COP 27 global climate conference in Egypt.
Biden, meanwhile, reported that he stressed to Xi that Beijing also has an obligation to temper North Korea’s destabilizing missile and nuclear activity that has the Pacific region on edge.
That the world’s two most powerful leaders had not been addressing these issues together in recent months shows how the entire world suffers when Washington and Beijing are as deeply estranged as they’ve been this year.
Public statements from both sides also appeared to indicate a basic foundation that each recognize the critical nature of their rivalry, and both want to ensure that it doesn’t boil over into a war, at least yet. They are moving towards reopening more regular conversations — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is now expected to visit China next year. Such exchanges have been suspended since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August and triggered fierce Chinese protests and a vast military operation showing a growing capacity to cut off the self-governing island.
Communications between leaders are critical at times of crisis – and any understanding and trust between Xi and Biden could come into play in the event, for instance, that the two sides’ naval forces slide into a clash in the South China Sea. Biden has known Xi for years and having a channel to the top in Beijing is especially vital now that his counterpart has become synonymous with the Chinese state itself, as “Xi Jinping thought” becomes official doctrine. The lack of such communications between leaders is one reason why the Russian standoff with the West over Ukraine is so perilous.
Leon Panetta – a former White House chief of staff, defense secretary and CIA chief who dealt with US-China relations for decades – expressed cautious optimism after the talks on the sidelines of the G20 summit.
“If the result of this meeting is to put the relationship back on a more diplomatic plane, in which instead of beating each other up they can begin a dialogue on the kind of issues that need to be dealt with, I think this meeting could very well be pivotal,” Panetta told CNN’s John King on “Inside Politics.”
Limits of leader summits
Relationships between leaders can set the tone for inter-state contacts. But they are also often overrated by the leaders themselves and in post-summit analysis. The dynamics that have led to the US and China each viewing the other as their prime national security threat are being driven by national interests not personality, even if Xi’s assumption of ultimate power in Beijing with a norm-busting third term may mean he may now have less of an immediate political reason to demonstrate toughness toward the United States.
But at the summit in Bali, Indonesia, it was clear that while both sides want to avoid a clash now, their goals – China wants to be the preeminent Asian and potentially global power, as does the US – remain fundamentally incompatible.
While Biden said he now understands that China has no imminent plan to invade Taiwan, he did rebuke Xi over Beijing’s “coercive and increasingly aggressive actions toward” the island, according to the White House. China’s readout of the talks expressed irritation with a central premise of Biden’s foreign policy – the global clash between democracy and autocracy, and the fact that relations with Beijing tend to be viewed by this prism.
“Neither side should try to remold the other in one’s own image or seek to change or even subvert the other’s system,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said.
“Instead of talking in one way and acting in another, the United States needs to honor its commitments with concrete action,” the readout added.
Equally, Xi’s public comments before the talks that “a statesman should think about and know where to lead his country. He should also think about and know how to get along with other countries and the wider world,” could be seen as an acknowledgment of new responsibility with China now a major world power. But they could also be read as the kind of lecture that Washington once delivered to Chinese leaders that Xi is now taking the opportunity to throw back at the US.
Biden said after the talks that he didn’t find Xi “more confrontational or more conciliatory. I found him the way he’s always been: Direct and straightforward. … We were very blunt with one another about places where we disagreed or where we were uncertain of each other’s position.”
Such commentary suggests heated behind-closed-doors disagreements on the most volatile areas in the relationship – Taiwan, trade and human rights, for example. But at least, after adding a measure of strategic confusion to the US position on Taiwan with his own recent comments that suggested Washington would come to the island’s defense in the event of a Chinese invasion, Biden said he and Xi now understood exactly where one another were coming from.
Progress for the world
But there were some signs that the world’s most powerful nations can still work together in the planet’s wider interests.
Biden publicly told Xi that the US was ready to reengage in climate talks – at an opportune moment for the Egypt climate summit. After the talks, a White House readout said that the two leaders “agreed to empower key senior officials to maintain communication and deepen constructive efforts” on climate change, global macroeconomic stability including debt relief, health security and global food security.”
The US statement that Xi and Biden “reiterated their agreement that a nuclear war should never be fought and can never be won and underscored their opposition to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine” was also important.
While Beijing has yet to confirm Xi’s side of the conversation, China’s consummation of a new friendship with Moscow just before the invasion of Ukraine caused alarm in the West. And as top US and Russian officials met in Turkey on Monday, partly about the nuclear issue, the signals coming out of the Xi-Biden talks could be an important indication of restraint from Beijing to Moscow and a diplomatic win for Washington.
Biden’s maneuvering is also the latest sign that an emerging goal of his foreign policy is to stress differences between Moscow and Beijing. Before he went to Asia, Biden suggested that China didn’t have that much respect for either Russian President Vladimir Putin or Russia itself.
So, Washington’s foreign policy has come full circle, since part of Richard Nixon’s motivation in engaging China during the 1970s Cold War deep freeze was to open strategic gaps between Beijing and Moscow.
Things aren’t so different now, though the dynamic between the Kremlin and Beijing has reversed, with China the global power and Russia the junior partner.