It was a meeting that ran for longer than three hours, but yielded no concrete agreements or even a joint statement. But what the dialogue between US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping — representing the top two global superpowers — achieved was an understanding that they needed to manage their misunderstandings in ways that would not lead to a direct conflict. Here’s what you need to know.
Where Do China-US Ties Stand?
It has been termed the ‘new Cold War’, mirroring the rivalry between the erstwhile USSR and the US in the aftermath of the Second World War as the two vied for global ascendancy. However, realities of the deeply interconnected world and economic interdependence means that the dynamics shared by China and the US are much more complex than that.
China seemingly emerged out of nowhere to establish itself as the second global superpower after the US since the turn of this century. It has the world’s second-largest economy, its largest military and has been aggressively pursuing an expansion of its regional and international clout by wooing nations across continents by promising help on the trade and infrastructure fronts. All this has increasingly put Beijing’s interests at conflict with the US worldview.
But even as China’s rise was accompanied by growing economic engagement with the US — China is currently US’ largest goods trading partner with USD 559.2 billion in total goods trade during 2020 — the US has in recent years complained about Chinese state support of domestic industries, which it says puts US companies at a disadvantage.
But if the tariff war started by former US President Donald Trump with China has subsided for the moment, the two countries have increasingly clashed on issues ranging from human rights and regional hegemony to tech dominance and perceptions of the world order. And, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, US has also countenanced claims that the novel coronavirus may have leaked from a Chinese lab.
US has tried to counter a more assertive Beijing by revitalising and pursuing alliances, especially in the Indo-Pacific, where the Quad, which includes India, and AUKUS partnerships are seen as having been struck with an eye on containing China. Beijing, for its part, has said that such arrangements only serve to increase instability in international relations. If US has sent naval vessels to patrol the Taiwan strait and reiterated its commitment of backing Taiwan, China has sent fighter jets into Taiwanese airspace in moves that are seen as preparing the ground for a full-scale invasion.
If the US has blacklisted Chinese tech companies and barred federal agencies from dealing with them, Beijing has sought to chart out a course of stepping up on domestic capabilities and reducing reliance on foreign knowhow. It is at such a juncture that the two presidents sat down for a virtual meet aimed at airing their apprehensions and addressing their misgivings.
So, Does It Mean US, China Are Friends Now?
It would be fair to say that the tone of the meeting was more about the two countries seeking to operate as respectful rivals without stepping on each other’s toes. Biden and Xi hailed each other as old friends and expressed regret that they were having to meet virtually, but it was not so much a warm embrace that their “candid" dialogue sought to achieve as a way to gauge what would be a safe distance for both to pursue their own interests.
As Biden pointed out to Xi in his opening remarks, “our responsibility as leaders of China and the US is to ensure that the competition between our countries does not veer into conflict, whether intended or unintended".
The US President said the need was to “establish some commonsense guardrails, to be clear and honest where we disagree, and work together where our interests intersect". Significantly, this outlook was accompanied by Biden’s acknowledgement that China is “a major world leader, and so is the US".
Xi, for his part, while not exactly conciliatory, stressed on the need for the two countries to be able to cooperate where it mattered. “As the world’s two largest economies and permanent members of the UN Security Council, China and the US need to increase communication and cooperation," he said.
“China and the US should respect each other, coexist in peace, and pursue win-win cooperation," Xi told Biden, adding that he was ready to work with the US President to “move China-US relations forward in a positive direction" as that would “advance the interests of our two peoples and meet the expectation of the international community".
Biden and Xi also discussed issues related to climate change, the Covid-19 response, Afghanistan, North Korea, etc.
What Were US’ Main Concerns That Biden Highlighted To Xi?
The key issues raised by Biden were much the ones that the US has for long flagged as major spoilers in dealing with Beijing. Saying that “past is prologue", the US President said that “from human rights, to economics, to ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific" were the “areas where we have concerns".
Referring to China’s unilateral pursuit of its strategic and geopolitical goals, the US stressed on the need for “all countries have to play by the same rules of the road" even as it maintained that the US “is always going to stand up for our interests and values and those of our allies and partners".
The economic and strategic clout that the US enjoys over China means that the issues highlighted by Biden focused in a big way on rights and an open global order with China’s alleged treatment of minorities in its northwestern Xijiang province, and crushing of protests in Tibet and Hong Kong finding mention as part of US concerns.
With the US turning its focus to the Indo-Pacific following its abrupt exit from Afghanistan, Biden “reiterated the importance of freedom of navigation and safe overflight to the region’s prosperity".
On the extremely contentious issue of Taiwan, while US stated that it remains committed to the “one China" policy, it “strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait".
On the economic front, the US President did talk about the need to protect American workers and industries from China’s “unfair trade and economic practices".
What Were The Main Issues For China That Were Raised By Xi?
Beijing has long complained of, and resisted, what it sees as US interference in its domestic affairs as expressed in Washington’s censure of its human rights practices and sanctioning of its officials over alleged abuses.
Pointing to the need for non-meddling in internal matters, Xi told Biden that “we should each run our domestic affairs well and, at the same time, shoulder our share of international responsibilities".
Further, given the chronic negative perceptions in the wider international community about democractic rights in authoritarian China, Xi sought to underline how democracy was not a one-size-fits-all formula. “Civilizations are rich and diverse, and so is democracy," he told Biden, adding that, “democracy is not mass produced with a uniform model or configuration for countries around the world".
“Whether a country is democratic or not should be left to its own people to decide. Dismissing forms of democracy that are different from one’s own is in itself undemocratic," he said while declaring that China is ready to have dialogues on human rights on the basis of mutual respect even as it opposes “using human rights to meddle in other countries’ internal affairs".
With Chinese businesses under increasing pressure from US — even as China remains out of bounds for major US internet giants, LikedIn being the latest to bow out of the country in the face of strict regulations — Xi said that “economic and trade issues between the two countries should not be politicised" and that the US “should stop abusing or overstretching the concept of national security to suppress Chinese businesses".
But the strongest words of the meeting, where China is concerned, were reserved to warn US off the Taiwan issue. Noting that Taiwan authorities “look for US support for their independence agenda as well as the intention of some Americans to use Taiwan to contain China", Xi said that “such moves are extremely dangerous, just like playing with fire" and that “whoever plays with fire will get burnt".
Xi said that China’s principled stand on China was that “there is but one China in the world and Taiwan is part of China". But amid fears of an outright invasion, the Chinese President said that their intention was to “strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification with utmost sincerity and efforts". However, he said that if any red lines were crossed on Taiwanese independence, China “will be compelled to take resolute measures".