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Foreign Policy

Biden in Beijing for Candid Talks with Chinese Leaders

Dec 10 , 2013
  • Wang Wenfeng

    Professor, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

Visits by top leaders are always of special importance in Sino-US relations, and that is surely the case for US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Beijing. When reporting on the visit, American and western media tend to focus on the issue of China’s newly-established Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), talking about the harsh words exchanged between China and the US, making the atmosphere over Biden’s visit look rather unpleasant. However, if comprehensively measured, Biden’s visit, like other top-level visits between China and the US in recently years, was quite successful and has sent quite positive signals about the bilateral relationship between these two major countries. 

First, on the issue of ADIZ, it is true that the US side has made its negative attitude clear before and during Biden’s visit to China. But on the other hand, people did notice the balance in America’s approach to this issue. During his visit to Japan, the country that this issue is most related to, Biden showed the distance with his host by neither agreeing to release a joint statement addressing the issue nor calling for China’s rescinding of ADIZ as Japan wished. At the same time, back in Washington, people keep hearing US government officials talk about American attitude toward the ADIZ issue, but with subtle changes in the wording. Also, US commercial airlines are filing flight plans to China, in contrast to what happens in Japan. Big countries, like China and America, do have disagreements from time to time, but to better measure the quality of the relationship, it may be more important to see how they deal with the problems, rather than just emphasize where they diverge. So instead of focusing on the disagreement between China and the US on the ADIZ issue and searching for its negative implications on bilateral relations, maybe we should pay attention to the fact that at least so far, the two countries pretty much deal with the issue in an “agree to disagree” way, and Biden’s visit actually helped to calm things down by setting a tone for US future behavior. 

Secondly, the ADIZ issue was definitely not the only thing about the visit, and there were other important topics discussed during Biden’s stay here in Beijing. Among them were nuclear issues in Iran and North Korea, where China-US cooperation is important, and economic relations between the top two economies in today’s world. The Vice President expressed strong desire for China-US cooperation, quoting Irish poet Yeats’s beautiful verses as he talked about the opportunity with China and the whole Asia-Pacific region to further strengthen the economic ties. Trade and cooperation in other economic areas are always essential to bilateral relationship, while China and the US now have more potential over different economic issues, and their increasing interdependence shows the maturity and sustainability of the general relationship. 

Thirdly, during his visit, we once again heard Vice President Biden talk about America’s hope to build the “new model of major country relationship” with China. He was quite direct about the competition between these two world giants, but he also made it clear that he himself and President Obama don’t believe that competition inevitably leads to conflict, and in his own words, “We’re determined not to repeat the patterns of the past”, namely the “tragedy of power politics”. There were times that people doubted the willingness on the part of the American side to accept the idea of “new model of relationship” and the possibility of the building of such a relationship. But as people hear repeatedly from people like Biden and other high ranking American officials, most recently National Security Adviser Susan Rice, talk about the idea in a serious way, they get the sense that the US leadership understands the significance of the idea and they really want to do something real for this relationship. That laid a solid base on which the two countries can push the process forward and constitutes some kind of a reassurance for the Sino-US strategic relationship not to go off track. 

Last but not least, we see good personal interactions between Biden and Chinese leaders, and that was one of the highlights of this visit. Personal relationship among top leaders is always important for countries to work together and to build trust, which was what the Vice President emphasized during the talks in Beijing. People still have vivid memory of this past June’s Sunnyland summit between the two presidents. And this time, President Xi spent more than 5 hours talking with his American guest, showing how much the leaders of the two countries have achieved in establishing dialogue channels between them and how much they feel comfortable talking with each other. Biden’s words on different occasions just gave the outside world an idea about the American leaders’ appreciation of the dialogues they have with their Chinese counterparts. 

China and the US face both opportunities and challenges in their extremely important bilateral relations. Top leaders of the two countries understand they need to talk frequently and candidly, especially during critical times like now. We don’t expect that this kind of visit and talk can solve all the problems and even narrow the gaps between the two countries’ positions. But for big power diplomacy, it is more complex than just solving problems and reaching consensus. The fact is it is important that they are talking candidly and patiently with each other, trying to understand and make themselves understood, willing to keep working to find ways to get along with each other, rather than leaving the relationship afloat and ignoring the risk of tension’s escalating. These are what responsible stakeholders do, and in a way, this is what New Type of Major Country Relationship looks like. 

Wang Wenfeng is a Research Professor at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

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