The virtual summit between Biden and China might define the new policy shift that will govern US-China relations in the coming days
The virtual summit between Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden on 15 November 2021 was a significant development as it was the first bilateral meeting between the Chinese and American leaders in more than two years. This was the most extensive recent meeting between the two and follows on from the phone call they exchanged on 9 September.
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.”
On the agenda were a slew of items ranging from the ongoing matter of trade, cyber issues, climate, Taiwan, and Xinjiang. More importantly, the summit will decide the tenor of the US-China relationship in the coming period. According to reports, the summit began on a friendly note with Biden telling Xi that they have already spent a lot of time together over the years, and have “always communicated with one another very honestly and candidly”. Xi responded by saying he was “very happy to see my old friend.”
Biden and Xi know each other well, having forged their relationship in 2011, when they were both respectively number two in their systems. Xi accompanied Biden through his leisurely six-day tour of the country in August 2011.
For the past 10 months since the Biden administration took office, there have been expectations that we will get a coherent China policy from the US. As of now, there have been no signs of the review of the China policy that the administration was supposed to conduct.
In his opening remarks, Biden spoke of the necessity of establishing “some common-sense guardrails” and told XI that there was a special responsibility on them “to ensure that the competition between our countries does not veer into conflict” and that its feature should be “straightforward competition.”
Xi, in turn, called for developing “a sound and steady China-US relationship”. He said China and the US should respect each other, and expressed his readiness “to take active steps to move China-US relations forward in a positive direction.”
For the past 10 months since the Biden administration took office, there have been expectations that we will get a coherent China policy from the US. As of now, there have been no signs of the review of the China policy that the administration was supposed to conduct. Recall that the policy of the Trump administration was chaotic and confusing, veering between the President’s transactionalism, to his Secretary of State John Pompeo’s ideological broadsides.
There is little doubt that both leaders went into the summit with domestic issues in mind. For China, it is the forthcoming Communist Party of China (CPC) Congress in 2022 where Xi is expecting to be elected as the General Secretary, and then President, for an unprecedented third term. For Biden, it is the necessity to regain political ground back home to face the consequential off-year election next year, where the Democrats look like they may lose their majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Both leaders, though came into the meeting riding on domestic success. Xi has just come out of a successful CPC plenum, which has deepened his control over the party and the government of the country. Biden will be there after signing a US $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which will go some way in meeting the challenge of America’s renewal and ability to out-compete China.
The recent plenum has a longer range of consequences, having passed a formal resolution that now defines Xi’s status as being at par with Mao and Deng. As Kevin Rudd has noted, the whole exercise has taken “Chinese politics to the left by establishing a more powerful role for the party over the professional apparatus of the Chinese state.” Xi could rule China through five US presidencies and, therefore, there is a need for a “long term, bipartisan national China strategy through to 2035 and beyond.”
China virtually gamed the global trading system, stole technology, and under Xi Jinping, it began to move away from openness and democracy and scoffed at the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in the South China Sea.
For four decades, US policy towards China was based on the belief that the Chinese economy would be changed by the prosperity arising from its market-oriented policies and connections to the global market. China would be socialised into the global economic norms. And second, that as China became richer and more connected to the global economy, it would become more open, more democratic, and more inclined to uphold international norms.
As is well known, this did not happen; China virtually gamed the global trading system, stole technology, and under Xi Jinping, it began to move away from openness and democracy and scoffed at the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in the South China Sea.
The big shift in American policy began only with the Trump administration. Trump initiated the process by slapping tariffs on virtually all of the Chinese imports, but this soon graduated to a policy of technology denial, beginning with restrictions on Huawei’s 5G technology. Since then, the US passed laws that firmed up its technology export regimes, and enhanced the listing of technologies in its export control act with China on its mind.
But Trump also refused to condemn the Chinese crackdown on Hong Kong, hoping it would help restart trade negotiations with China. One of his National Security Advisers John Bolton has written about how Trump had no problem with the Chinese detention centres in Xinjiang and, in fact, supported the idea.
Trump initiated the process by slapping tariffs on virtually all of the Chinese imports, but this soon graduated to a policy of technology denial, beginning with restrictions on Huawei’s 5G technology.
Another feature of the Trump policy was the attack on the CPC and its role by the Secretary of State, Michael Pompeo, suggesting to the Chinese that the US could well embark on a regime-change policy. As COVID hit the Phase I trade agreement, relations between the US and China deteriorated fast. To deflect from its own mishandling of the pandemic, the Trump administration sought to label it as the “Wuhan virus,” and attacked China for deliberately concealing the virulence of the virus and its origins.
The Biden administration was supposed to change all this, but little has happened on the ground. From the outset, the Biden team made it clear that, in its view, relations with China would be based on a paradigm of “extreme competition” in all areas, especially technology and an effort to avoid conflict. They acknowledged that the US would also have to reform and restructure to meet the challenge.
The line from the outset has been that the US was willing to cooperate with China in areas like nuclear proliferation, climate change, and Afghanistan. But it would retain the tough line on China’s actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Yet, there has been no let-up in the tariff regime or sanctions on the Chinese companies, or the restrictions imposed on certain Chinese individuals on actions related to Xinjiang and Hong Kong, as well as a certain class of Chinese students.
Interactions between the US officials and their Chinese counterparts have ranged from testy to cool. The Alaska talks saw some fireworks where the US insisted on discussing a range of issues from human rights abuses, cyber attacks, and pressure on Taiwan; the Chinese responded in kind, accusing the US of using its might to suppress countries and in turn criticised the US human rights record where black Americans were being slaughtered.
To deflect from its own mishandling of the pandemic, the Trump administration sought to label it as the “Wuhan virus,” and attacked China for deliberately concealing the virulence of the virus and its origins.
However, the Alaska talks did succeed in getting a joint working group on climate change and some commitments on possible retraction of the tough measures taken by the Trump administration from shutting down the Houston Consulate, restrictions on the media, and the visa restrictions.
In the ensuing months, there was the visit of US Special Envoy, John Kerry, on climate change to China; an event which was described by some as a diplomatic embarrassment to the US for the manner in which the American envoy was treated. The Chinese told Kerry that notwithstanding the US approach, the Chinese were not ready to decouple the climate change issue from the wider tenor of US-China relations.
Then, there was the long-running dispute about the origins of COVID-19 and its handling which spilt over to the Biden administration. In May 2021, Biden ordered an investigation by the US intelligence community into the origins of COVID. The report which was issued in August this year was inconclusive and was not able to pin down the origin of the outbreak.
In September, there was another development that was probably seeking to clear the table for the virtual summit. This was the release of Meng Wenzhou, the daughter of the founder of Huawei, who had been under house arrest in Canada since 2018, pending extradition proceedings to the United States. In return, China released two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor who, bluntly put, were being held hostage by Beijing to pressure Canada to release Meng.
Xi Jinping did not attend the COP26 in early November, a fact criticised by President Biden. But the Chinese agreed to a surprise joint declaration with the US on climate action in the 2020s, through which they expressed their intention to cooperate in a range of areas and establish a working group on enhancing climate action.
China released two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor who, bluntly put, were being held hostage by Beijing to pressure Canada to release Meng.
Meanwhile, both the US and China are also realising the importance of their existing ties. Trade is booming despite the pandemic and the tariffs. The US is also finding that restricting technology exports is easier said than done. A recent Wall Street Journal article has pointed out that that despite all the restrictions of the last three years, US companies continue to assist China’s bid for chip dominance.
In the coming days, the two sides are likely to provide more details of the outcome of the meeting; what we could see are steps to shape a new modus vivendi between the US and China. This could feature a strategy of “wary engagement”, as well as “intense competition” that Biden has been talking about for some time. Both sides are wary of allowing things to drift to the point of conflict. So, an important feature of the summit could be the institutionalisation of some procedures to ensure this in relation to Taiwan and the South China Sea.
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Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...Read More +