When Joe Biden won the US presidential election in late 2020, there was plenty of interest from the media in his personal relationship with Xi Jinping, The two men had not only met on a number of occasions in their careers but had lengthy, closed-door dinners together, with Biden once claiming to have spent more than 70 hours with Xi, on journeys of thousands of miles together across both China and the United States.
Too much can be made of the impact of these ties, of course. During campaigning for the presidency in 2020 Biden had derided Xi as a “thug” and he bristled again at being talked about as a pal of the Chinese president after taking office. “We know each other well. We’re not old friends. It’s just pure business,” he stressed to reporters.
Xi has been more circumspect in his views on Biden too, bar the occasional mention of him as an “old friend” – a stock phrase that implies a level of familiarity and (perhaps) even some trust in Chinese diplomatic-speak.
If the actual extent of their intimacy remains nebulous, few would doubt that their relationship is probably the most important among any two politicians on the planet right now. This explains the rapt attention that was directed at the tropical island of Bali on Monday, where Biden and Xi met for three and a half hours in advance of the G20 Summit. It was the first time the two men had talked in person since 2017, and came at a time when trust between the world’s two superpowers is in dangerously short supply. So how did it go?
A chance for a reset?
Whatever Biden’s personal history with Xi, a strong argument can be made that his government has taken a more confrontational line with Beijing than even its predecessor. Indeed, Donald Trump hosted Xi in his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida just a few months after being inaugurated as the US president in 2017. He would pay a state visit to China in the same year. The closest prior encounter between Biden and Xi in the last two years, however, has been a virtual summit held shortly after the G20 summit in Rome last year.
Much of that is because bigger forces have been in play. Attitudes towards China were already turning more hawkish in the US after a loss of faith in the view that doing business with the Chinese would see Beijing move towards American-defined economic and political norms.
Under Xi the Chinese have been pushing for a greater say in global affairs, increasing the chances of disagreement with Washington.
And then came the Covid-19 crisis, adding a new layer of tension to the relationship.
Overarching circumstances like these make the dynamic between the two men a little less of a factor. On top of that they both also have domestic audiences to impress and each came to Bali wanting to present the impression of personal strength. Xi has established himself as the most powerful figure in Chinese politics for more than a generation after securing a third term as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party last month. Biden’s position was also buoyed by better-than-expected results in last week’s US midterm elections.
Not that White House officials had been expecting much to come from the talks in Bali, highlighting before Biden’s trip that the goal was more about reducing the risks of misconception or miscommunication than achieving anything concrete. That was the message after the summit had finished as well. “I’m not suggesting this is kumbaya, you know, [that] everybody’s going to go away with everything in agreement,” Biden acknowledged.
Yet there was also a sense that he was playing on his acquaintance with Xi again, describing the Chinese president as “the way he’s always been: direct and straightforward” during the pair’s meeting.
There was cautious approval for the summit on the Chinese side as well, with Wang Yi, the foreign minister, describing it as a “new starting point” and noting that it went on longer than planned. Both governments “hope to stop the tumbling of bilateral ties and to stabilise the relationship,” he added in a briefing to Chinese media.
So the main motto was “don’t let things get any worse”?
Monday’s talks were important in allowing the two presidents to talk about the bigger picture and lay the stage for their senior officials to work on the minutiae of managing the bilateral relationship more effectively, agrees Daniel Russel, who worked on Asia affairs for the Obama administration.
“Laying out each leader’s ‘priorities and intentions’ is precisely the kind of conversation that Xi and Biden needed to have,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “What each of them heard from the other – however tough – is certainly less alarming than the stream of worst-case analyses they receive daily from within their systems.”
That was reflected in comments from both men, with Biden saying that their governments had a responsibility to “prevent competition from becoming anything ever near a conflict”.
For his part, Xi urged the two sides “to find the right direction” and “elevate the relationship”.
In policy parlance this kind of effort is sometimes described in Washington as setting “guardrails” to make sure that the relationship doesn’t veer into dangerous areas. It doesn’t always work out, however. The lead-up to the meeting in Bali displayed marked similarities to Biden’s sit-down with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in the summer of 2021, when the goal was to set guardrails on that relationship too, Bloomberg noted. Less than a year later Russia sent tanks into the Ukraine and Washington broke off most of its diplomatic contact with Moscow.
One difference here is that the US-China relationship is much more intertwined in trade and investment terms. And as part of their rivalry both governments are more aware of how their actions are perceived by other nations, something that was on show this week in the efforts of their leaders.
Immediately before arriving in Bali Biden was pressing the flesh with ASEAN leaders, who want the US engaged in Asia as a counterbalance to Chinese power, but not to the level that its presence becomes confrontational, destabilising trade and investment.
And the Chinese are playing to the same crowd in projecting an image of the responsible statesman, says Yin Sun, a director of the China Program at the Washington-based Stimson Center. “Beijing’s priority is about what it can show the world from the meeting, rather than what it can directly gain from the meeting, given the lack of hope about improving US-China relations,” she told Bloomberg. “To get US concessions and cooperation is important but is not the only priority.”
Where was the common ground?
Both governments said they would resume cooperation on issues including climate change and food security, where conversations had come to a halt this summer because of the fallout triggered by a contentious visit to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker.
Biden and Xi were also more aligned in warning the Russians against using nuclear weapons in Ukraine in what was probably the main diplomatic win for the Americans at the summit.
Emmanuel Macron, the French president, then issued a statement after his own meeting with Xi saying that China was joining with France in calling for “respect of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine,” which looked like a step closer to criticism of Putin’s position than Beijing’s previous responses to the conflict.
Yet the Chinese were said to have resisted pressure from Western nations to endorse a fuller condemnation of Russian aggression. No joint statement was published after the bilateral meeting with Biden and according to a readout published by the Chinese foreign ministry, China remains in support of a resumption of peace talks between Russia and Ukraine, and Beijing has also urged the US, NATO and the EU “to conduct comprehensive dialogues with Russia”.
The final Leaders’ Declaration after the G20 summit also acknowledged the different views on the situation and on sanctions against Russia, adding that the G20 isn’t a forum for resolving security issues.
So where are the ‘red lines’?
Despite the talk of common ground, there was just as much evidence of mutual disagreement. The read-out of the summit from the American government demonstrated some of these differences: Biden tabled objections to Beijing’s endorsement of “non-market” economic activity, as well as his concerns about events in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong – and human rights more broadly.
Old habits died hard in the Chinese press coverage as well, most notably in the Global Times, which was even point-scoring on the venue of the Biden-Xi presidential meeting, which it identified as happening in the Chinese delegation’s hotel in Bali. “Furthermore, this meeting was proposed by the US,” it remarked in one of its editorials on Tuesday.
Despite welcoming the summit as a signal that the two leaders could still talk candidly, the same editorial demonstrated all of the residual bitterness at what it sees as American responsibility for the fraying of relations between the two countries too.
“It is not difficult to find that each time the continuous deterioration of China-US relations happens, it is due to unilateral provocation by the US,” it warned. “As the saying goes, ‘whoever starts the trouble should end it’.”
Biden had talked in advance of the summit about how the two sides needed to minimise these tensions by figuring out their respective “red lines”. But that might have sounded a little disingenuous to the Chinese, who have made their views abundantly clear about a key issue in the relationship – the status of Taiwan.
The Chinese are furious that the Biden administration has moved beyond the ‘strategic ambiguity’ of previous US policy, for instance, with the American president (and commander-in-chief) saying on four separate occasions that his military would defend the island if it were to come under attack. Each time his aides have tried to walk back the statements, claiming that there hasn’t been a change in Washington’s stance, but the repetition of the remarks is now widely regarded as signalling intent to the Chinese, rather than being slips of the tongue (something Biden is prone to but likely not when he has made the statement four times).
Beijing closed many of its lines of communication with US officials over the summer to express its fury at Pelosi’s Taiwan visit, as well as ordering its military to conduct unprecedented live-fire drills near the island.
But if Biden still needed guidance on China’s concerns, Xi helped him out in Bali by citing Taiwan as the “first red line” that could not crossed in US-China relations.
Xi even drew from Washington’s phrasebook in describing the longstanding communiqués between the two governments on Taiwan as the “most important guardrail and safety net” for bilateral relations, while Hua Chunying, a foreign ministry spokesperson, reiterated the point in describing the island as “at the very core of China’s core interests” and “the bedrock of the political foundation of China-US relations” after the meeting had ended.
So Taiwan is going to be a touchstone if relations are to improve?
In the White House read-out of Monday’s conversation on Taiwan, Biden objected to China’s “coercive and increasingly aggressive” actions. Yet he also assured Xi that American policy towards the island had not changed. In a further bid to dial down tensions, he said that he didn’t think there was “any imminent attempt” from the Chinese to invade Taiwan either.
It was also announced that his Secretary of State Antony Blinken would visit China soon and that officials from both governments would resume working together in areas that they have identified as priorities, like formal talks on climate cooperation.
None of this is going to matter so much – in setting the tone for the relationship – as what happens next in Taiwan.
And here the path is potentially perilous. Even as Biden and Xi were talking about de-escalating tensions between the two governments, Congress was making plans to back a multi-billion dollar weapons package for Taiwan, for example, with bipartisan support for a further arming of Taiwanese forces.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a bill in September that, if passed during the upcoming congressional session, would serve as the biggest overhaul of Washington’s policy on Taipei since the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. Known as the Taiwan Policy Act, the legislation provides at least $6.5 billion to Taiwan in military aid through to 2027 and authorises a range of further loans and expedited arms sales, as well as launching a major new training programme between Taiwanese and American forces.
The Biden administration is alive to how Beijing could react, it seems, and it lobbied for the removal of some of its original provisions in the legislation, including the designation of Taiwan as a “major non-NATO ally”, which risked driving a final stake through the heart of the ‘One China’ policy that has kept the peace in the Taiwan Strait since the 1970s.
Yet tensions in the region show little sign of subsiding. Nor does Biden have the same level of control over his domestic political scene as Xi does at a time when the backing for Taiwan is getting louder across both parties in Congress.
As another example: Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy, who is in line to replace Pelosi as House Speaker, has said that he wants to visit Taipei as well (after he is likely confirmed in the politically-powerful role in January), despite the predictably incendiary response that this would provoke from Beijing.
“China’s reaction will be stronger than the time when Pelosi went. This cannot be a repeated move made by a House Speaker,” Lu Xiang from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing ominously warned the South China Morning Post.
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