Whither Sino-US Relations?: Key Takeaways From the Virtual Summit

virtual meet between President Xi and Biden
Image credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the People's Republic of China

Nov. 16 brought what many across the world were eagerly waiting for — a bilateral meeting between the United States and China. Though the virtual meet failed to produce a concrete plan of action, it opened communication on some of the most sticky issues between the two powers.

Recrafting Bonhomie

The ambience was one of affability as Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed US President Joe Biden as his “老朋友” (Old friend). Biden too fondly remembered several of their past meetings, claiming that the two have “never been that formal with one another.”

Surprisingly, the meeting went on for more than three hours and in fact, became one of the warmest moments between the two nations in the recent past as Sino-US relations, which began to deteriorate under former US President Donald Trump, further worsened since Joe Biden took office in January last year.

Soon after assuming office, Biden labeled the Communist Party of China led goverment “autocratic” and blamed it for muffling dissent, curtailing human rights in its autonomous regions such as Xinjiang,  espionage, undertaking unfair trade practices, engaging in aggressive demeanor overseas such as in the South China Sea dispute as well as called for independently investigating the origins of the coronavirus, resonating Trump’s allegations of it being a ‘Chinese invention.’ China too did not shy away from calling out Washington’s “unilateralism”and  blamed it for flaring “Cold War mentality.” Moreover, Beijing bitterly  criticised America’s “hurried” withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

 

Though the two sides tried their best to keep the conversation candid, the meet resulted in neither a joint statement nor any big promises. Moreover, Xi did not invite Biden to the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing which many had expected. However, considering how the bilateral meet at Alaska earlier this year turned into a bitter war of words, the meet comes as a welcome move amidst worsening ties.

What was discussed?

The virtual meet served as an important platform for the leaders of the two most powerful countries to discuss several crucial issues.

In his address, Biden carefully resounded Blinken’s Alsaka meet remarks by stating that the two leaders must ensure what goes between them remains “just simple, straightforward competition” which does not “veneer into conflict.” Xi reflected similar views in his address by expressing his readiness to work with the United States to better ties. Both agreed on the importance of a stable bilateral relationship in not just ensuring world peace and development but for combating common concerns like Climate Change and the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, the cooperative tone did not eclipse sensitive issues from appearing. Biden expressed his concern regarding the question of alleged human rights violations in China’s autonomous regions of Xinjiang, Hong Kong, etc. as well as  its policies of economic coercion towards the United States and its allies. He further stated that “all countries have to play by the same rules of the road”, pointing to China’s claims in the South China Sea which Washington sees as a violation of the UNCLOS.

The question of Taiwan dominated the meeting. Chinese Communist Party sponsored Global Times quoted Xi’s remarks on Taiwan, who reportedly blamed American interference in the island as a way of ‘containing’ China and claimed raising the issue of Taiwan’s independence to be similar to “playing with fire…whoever plays with fire gets burnt.” He clearly stated that  China intends a “peaceful reunification”, which forms a major tenet of the Xi Jinping Thought.

Biden clarified Washington’s stance on Taiwan by stating that he had no intentions of unilaterally changing the status quo, reiterating the United States’ commitment to the ‘One China Policy’ under Taiwan Relations Act,1979; Three Joint Communiqués and the Six Assurances. Under the 1979 act, Washington does not view Taiwan as a separate state but remains committed to supply it with arms for defense. The act, however, does not commit Washington to send troops in Taiwan’s defense.

Strong comments were exchanged on the question of trade. While Biden blamed China’s “unfair ” economic practices as detrimental to Washington’s interests, Xi blamed the United States for abusing the concept of national security to corner China. Biden urged China to abide by the trade agreement it signed with his predecessor Donald Trump as per which Beijing is lagging behind its commitment to buy $200 billion more of US goods. Xi responded by stating that the issue must not be politicized.

Climate change too was discussed where the two claimed to be on the same page which they reaffirmed in a joint statement  few days before at Glasgow.

The two reportedly discussed the situation in Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea; global energy shortages, military issues as well as the pandemic.

Why now?

The meet comes at an interesting point as both sides deal with their own domestic and international concerns.

By late October, Joe Biden’s popularity fell to 43%, the lowest point in his administration. Several factors are to blame including the pandemic as well as economic woes. The coronavirus cases have been rising again in several parts of the United States which recently saw 83,000 cases a day on an average.

As a result of surging cases, the US economy grew at its slowest pace for more than a year in the third quarter. The GDP grew at a 2% annualized rate last quarter, the slowest since the second quarter of 2020. Consumer spending, which forms 2/3rds of the economic activity, grew at a sluggish rate of 1.6%.

Moreover, Biden has failed to mitigate any geopolitical crisis which has come his way so far. The hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan has not only heavily tarnished Washington’s image as a responsible global power but has also drawn flak from adversaries and allies alike. His administration’s failure to condemn Israel’s blatant violations of international law in clashes with Palestinians earlier this year drew widespread criticism at home and abroad.

Biden’s Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative as a response to Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) enjoys little popularity with only 35% citizens considering it as an extremely important concern.

Xi too has his own share of concerns to deal with. Reunification with Taiwan is a major issue which he has expressed at several occassions, only to earn criticism from the island in return. As many scholars speculate his preparations to get himself appointed as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China for another five years at the upcoming 20th Party Congress in 2022, reunification with the island or atleast to keep alive the hope that it would be reunified, acts as an important guard to his legitimacy as a strong and capable  leader. Enshrined in his Xi Jinping Thought, reunification is considered a crucial step to the realization of his “Chinese Dream” (中国梦) and cooperation with the US in this regard becomes important. Though China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has modernized considerably in the recent past, it is still weak in several aspects and if a military conflict does break out with Washington, which many believe has slight chances of erupting, China might end up risking not just its image as a strong power but also its phenomenal economic growth, one of the central aspects which legitimizes the Communist Party’s rule.

Effects of global energy crunch, evident in widespread power outages in several of China’s cities, as well as environmental concerns such as pollution call for joint cooperation with other global powers particularly the United States.

What it means for Sino-US Relations?

The two sides remained friendly yet firm, even refusing to negotiate on several principles. However, it was apparent that the two regarded the event as a serious and important development in preventing conflict.

The locations were carefully chosen. Biden addressed the meeting from the Roosevelt Room of the White House while Xi logged in from the East Hall of the Great Hall of the People. Both these rooms have a celebrated history of their own and have been used to announce top leaders as well as to convene important meetings.

Besides, both sides were firm to not let their differences magnify into a Cold War. Xi criticized Washington’s attempts to form a coalition of like minded liberal democracies against Beijing which Biden clarified was not the intention. Xi reiterated on the dangers of letting “ideological demarcations” create differences and both agreed that letting it magnify would be a mistake of historical proportions.

Differences are many and grave but development of a Cold War like the past era of bipolarity is unlikely thanks to globalization which has enmeshed the economies across the world and created heavy dependency on one over the other.

Washington today is more connected to Beijing  on several levels than ever before vis à vis limited contacts with the Soviet Union. Letting their differences escalate to a Cold War like situation would have grave consequences on the world at large, the likes of which have not been seen. As both powers today possess high degrees of lethal technology and advanced nuclear weapons, letting ignorance and misunderstandings magnify into a Cold War would lead to unimaginable consequences.

How relevant was the meet?

Though the virtual meet did not materialize into any tangible cooperation, it comes as an important step at a time of heightened tensions. It is extremely crucial for both sides to communicate their concerns and intentions clearly. While the US must accept China’s rise as an alternative centre of power and treat it such, China too must recognize that its interests lay in cooperating rather than in challenging other powers. As stated in the meet, being the two most powerful nations, they owe responsibility to not just their own people but the world at large. If not a milestone, the virtual meeting serves as an important step in realizing it.

Cherry Hitkari is a postgraduate student of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi, India. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.