‘Old Friends’: Xi-Biden Meet Shows US & China Are Willing to Reboot Ties

The US-China relationship is witnessing a change and there is likely to be more realism on both sides now.

5 min read
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Even as the full details of the Xi Jinping-Joe Biden virtual summit on Monday night are not yet available, remarks made public suggest that both are interested in lowering temperatures and working out a new modus vivendi for the troubled relationship between the two countries.

In his opening remarks, Biden referred to their past relationship when Xi, as Vice-President, escorted the then US Vice-President Biden during his six-day visit to China in 2011. In turn, Xi called him an “old friend”.


'Managing Competition Responsibly'

Some details of what really transpired in the over-three-hour-long meeting will only filter in the coming days. No joint statement seems to have been issued. But the American readout after the talks noted that the two sides “discussed the complex nature of relations between our two countries and the importance of managing competition responsibly”.

It said that Biden had raised issues about China’s practices in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong. He also took up the issue of Beijing’s “unfair trade and economic practices” as well as the importance of a free and open Indo-Pacific. He noted that the US remains committed to a one-China policy and “strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo”.

Chinese officials had, in advance, noted that Taiwan and the tensions that have occurred there would be at the top of their agenda. In the talks, Xi made it clear to Biden that China would be compelled to “to take resolute measures” if the “separatist” forces in Taiwan provoked a crisis and “force our hands or even cross the red line”.

He said that the two countries needed “to respect each other’s social systems and development paths, respect each other’s core interest”.

He added that the US and Chinese interests were “deeply intertwined” and that both would stand to gain from cooperation, and that the right thing to do was to seek mutual benefits rather than see their relations as a “zero-sum game”.

Genuflecting to Biden’s advocacy of the issue, Xi added that climate change could well become the new highlight of China-US cooperation.


Biden Stresses the Need to Avoid Conflict

From the outset, Biden stressed the importance of not only managing strategic risks but also keeping communication lines open. He also referred to transnational challenges where Chinese and American interests intersected, such as climate change and the health crisis. The American readout notes that the two leaders also discussed the issue of global energy supplies and key regional challenges such as North Korea, Afghanistan, and Iran.

Earlier, in his opening remarks, Biden had spoken of the need “to establish some commonsense guardrails” to ensure that the two countries do not “veer into conflict”. He sought a relationship of “simple, straightforward competition” and the importance of communicating “honestly and directly to one another about our priorities and intentions”. From his point of view, the agenda would be “from human rights to economics, to ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

In turn, Xi had said that as the world’s two largest economies and permanent members of the UN Security Council, “China and the United States need to increase communication and cooperation”.

What the two needed was “a sound and steady China-US relationship” that would safeguard “a peaceful and stable international environment” as well as make for effective cooperation to deal with challenges like climate change and COVID-19.

He expressed his willingness to work with Biden “to build consensus, take active steps, and move China-US relations forward in a positive direction”.


Both Had Domestic Wins

Though both leaders talked about international issues during the summit, their eyes were really focused on domestic developments. Both went into the summit with their hands strengthened.

Just before the summit, Biden had signed the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that seeks to upgrade the country’s crumbling infrastructure. He is hoping that the emphasis on the economic transformation of the country will help him ride out the bad poll numbers that have been haunting his presidency since the Afghanistan fiasco.

Xi Jinping had just come from a successful Sixth Communist Party of China Plenum, which has more or less endorsed his re-election as General Secretary and then President for an unusual third term in the Party Congress scheduled in 2022.


Biden Wants a More Systematic China Policy

China and the US are trying to work out a new relationship paradigm. For decades, the US policy was based on the belief that as China became richer, it would become more open, possibly even democratic. That has not happened, and under Xi, China has veered leftward and become more authoritarian even as it became militarily more powerful. It has not hesitated to assert itself against its neighbours like India, Japan or the South China Sea. With its technological might, China is seeking to become not just another industrialised country, but the dominant one, something that has disturbed its international interlocutors.

The US policy shift began only during the Donald Trump administration in 2018, when tariffs were slapped on over $300 billion worth of Chinese goods and restrictions imposed not just on a range of technologies but also on the issue of passports to some categories of students and sanctions on officials. China’s handling of Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and the Taiwan issue has been strongly criticised not just by the US, but, increasingly, the European Union (EU) as well. Most of the measures remain in place, much to the chagrin of Beijing.

The Biden administration has sought to make its China policy more systematic by categorising areas where it will confront the Chinese, preferably through a coalition of like-minded countries, and where it will cooperate, such as in issues like climate change, terrorism and non-proliferation.

As for technology, the Biden mantra calls for the need to outcompete China, and for that, Biden wants a range of domestic and external policies. Rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure is just the first step here. The US has roped in the G7 for a ‘Build Back Better World’ plan to provide an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and has provided access to some $60 billion of capital from the US International Development Finance Corporation.

In June, the US Senate passed the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, one of the largest industrial bills in US history, which would commit roughly $250 billion in funding for scientific research, subsidies for chip and robot makers, and an overhaul of the National Science Foundation.


More Realism on Both Sides

The US-China relationship is witnessing a qualitative change. In 2013, Xi had tried to persuade the then US President Barack Obama to accept the notion of a “new type of great power relations”. In essence, it meant (i) no conflict or confrontation by emphasising dialogue to understand each other’s strategic intentions, (ii) mutual respect for each other’s core interests and major concerns, and, (iii) mutually beneficial cooperation and advancing areas of mutual interest.

Echoes of that can be heard again today. At that time, the US had ignored the Chinese approach. What we are seeing now is an effort to work through the checklist identified at the time and see whether the items identified can meet the changed needs of today.

At that time, the Chinese were riding high and the US was still in thrall to its “engagement” policy with regard to China. There is likely to be more realism now on both sides. China’s strengths have become manifest. But so have those of the US, which is getting its act together and only now beginning to compete.

The question the summit does not quite answer is whether the two countries can manage this competition, which is not just over commerce and technology, but their very world views. Responsibly managing it is something not just in the interest of the two countries, but the world itself.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:   China    United States   Xi Jinping 

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