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Xi-Biden meeting in San Francisco: Only a momentary détente

opinionXi-Biden meeting in San Francisco: Only a momentary détente

How the US-China relations would evolve in 2024 was indicated in President Biden’s repetition of his opinion of Xi Jinping as a ‘dictator’ in his media interaction after the meeting.

The scheduled meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the APEC summit in San Francisco preceded months of high-level preparations by the two countries involving cabinet level dialogues, cultural exchanges, and positive propaganda exercises, especially by China.

The liberal American media and the state-controlled Chinese media carefully printed the efforts made by the Biden Administration and Xi Jinping regime to produce a conducive political ambience to facilitate friendly conversations on a host of global, regional and bilateral issues between the two leaders in San Francisco. Before the San Francisco meet, the Philadelphia Orchestra performed with China National Symphony Orchestra in Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Suzhou. The famous Chinese digital artwork—An Era in Jinling was exhibited at Faneuil Hall Market Place in Boston. The reputed Songshan Shaolin Temple in China collaborated with Shaolin North American Association and demonstrated the Kung Fu skills in Los Angeles. Four cabinet level American officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, visited China last summer and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and a few other high officials reciprocated by visiting the US.

All these efforts were made to make “the road to San Francisco” appear clean and smooth. It was also imperative to do so, because the bitterness in Sino-US relations with their acute differences over a range of issues, such as the Ukraine War, Israel-Hamas war, Taiwan, South China Sea, East China Sea, trade, human rights and fentanyl export to the US made it difficult for Washington and Beijing to find common grounds to mend the relations and promote cooperation.

Yet, there was a realization in both the capitals that the leaders of the two superpowers must meet and have front-to-front conversation to stop any further erosion of trust and to prevent political, strategic and economic differences from veering into open conflict. The Biden Administration has been preoccupied in two wars—one in Europe and the other in West Asia and has been apprehensive of a third front conflict in the Indo-Pacific. The Chinese aggressive military moves in South China Sea both against the Philippines and the US naval ships and aircraft patrolling the sea and persistent muscle flexing along the Taiwan Strait could potentially escalate into a Sino-US armed conflict and it was in American interest to prevent any such escalation.

Even President Xi, despite his slow and restrained responses to US initiatives to communicate at the highest levels, has been facing significant political and economic headwinds and its inclination toward détente with the United States is thus explicable. The economic slowdown, high unemployment rate, the debt ridden domestic real estate sector, rising popular discontent against the government, skyrocketing debt of provincial and local governments, search for alternative supply chains by many countries, and efforts by multinational companies to de-risk trade and investment ties with China provided enough rationale for President Xi to seek relaxation of relations with the United States.

While expectations of fruitful results were low in the US, in China and elsewhere from the Xi-Biden meeting, the outcome of the summit is disappointing. One can say that at best it was a low-grade détente and at worst a signal to forthcoming deepening of cold war type rivalries between the two countries. First, there was no joint statement even after Xi and Biden held four hours of discussion on a wide range of critical issues. Second, the agreement on fentanyl and the willingness to restore military communication were nothing but face-saving announcements. Although Xi agreed to cooperate in handling fentanyl exports to the US, President Biden, in response to a question on trustworthiness of Chinese commitment, remarked that there can be trust, but it needs “verification”. As far as the deal to restore military communication is concerned, China had given similar assurances earlier also. Third, there was no mention of any discussion between the leaders on climate change issue, despite former Secretary of State and climate envoy John Kerry indulging the Chinese in a working group to address the climate issue. Even there, Kerry was not able to come up with a joint statement on cooperation. Fourth, on the issue where China has drawn a “red line”—Taiwan—Biden warned Xi against seeking to influence the national elections in Taiwan in January 2024 by flexing its threatening military postures, while Xi reportedly cautioned Biden against selling weapons to Taiwan. Xi repeated his determination to unify Taiwan with the Mainland, though did not mention use of force. Biden did not promise to end weapons sale to Taiwan. Fifth, on the crucial issues of two devastating wars—Russo-Ukraine war and Israel-Hamas war—there was no meeting of minds. Biden would not urge Israel to end its military operations and China would call for immediate ceasefire. The US President sought Chinese intervention to restrain Iran and the Chinese President showed no interest in doing so.

Joe Biden described his meeting with Xi as “constructive”, but there were no trade or investment deals. There was no understanding, as expected, on the need to prevent AI from being used in nuclear weapons or automated weapon systems. How the US-China relations would evolve in 2024 was indicated in President Biden’s repetition of his opinion of Xi Jinping as a “dictator” in his media interaction after the meeting. The Taiwanese election in January 2024 and the US presidential election in November 2024 will witness high cold war rhetoric and political posturing and the atmosphere will appear muddied to allow any positive movement in US-China relations.

The bottom line is the Biden administration does not want conflict with China and asserts to compete with China. Xi Jinping says that there is enough room on the planet for both the US and China to grow, but does everything possible to ward off any impression that there is only one superpower in the world. One hopes that China does not take advantage of deeper US engagement in the wars of Europe and West Asia to brandish its military capabilities in the Indo-Pacific. Thus the current meeting, second in person meeting between the two leaders on the side-lines of G20 first and APEC Summit next, has resulted in a fragile détente that may break down anytime.

Chintamani Mahapatra is Founder Chairperson, Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies and formerly Professor at JNU.

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