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Foreign Policy

Tale of Two Readouts

Apr 19, 2024

Earlier this month, Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping connected over a phone call. At first glance, the Chinese readout and the American readout of the April call seemed to be describing very different conversations. Neither side was lying, but each side willfully heard what it wanted to hear and saw what it wanted to see, which also seems to characterize the current nature of the relationship more broadly. 

The readouts were in essence nationalistic narrative summaries designed to play to the home team, to create the impression that each respective leader is at once diplomatic and firm. 

Thus a side-by-side comparison of the readouts really does sound like the record of two very different phone calls. That one can honestly produce such starkly divergent impressions of a single conversation is a reminder that all summaries are subjective. 

Nothing less than a full transcript of every word uttered would settle who said what when and in what context, and even then there’d be room to argue, but full transcripts are rarely released in such circumstances. 

What’s left is a highly edited “he said, he said” scenario. It should come as no surprise that a good deal of editorial cherry-picking was undertaken by both sides. 

The U.S. readout emphasized issues that reflect State Department diplomatic talking points. It comports with the Biden administration’s vision of itself as a firm and fair interlocutor in its dealings with China. 

The Chinese readout, in turn, reflects Chinese diplomatic visions and practical priorities as articulated by Xi Jinping. 

Both sides attribute positive importance to the phone call, which was the first personal communication between the two leaders since they met in Woodside, California, on the side of the APEC Summit. 

To U.S. officials, it’s the meeting in “Woodside” or the “Woodside summit.” To Chinese officials, it’s “San Francisco” or the “San Francisco vision.” 

Same meeting, different dreams. 

An example of concerns aired at the top of the U.S. readout that get only a glancing mention in the China readout include counter-narcotics cooperation, ongoing military communication, AI related risks, and climate change. 

More stridently, though carefully couched in diplomatic terms, the U.S. takes exception to Beijing’s support of Moscow in the context of the latter’s war of invasion in Ukraine. This was put euphemistically as concern about “PRC support for Russia’s defense industrial base.” 

Interestingly enough, the Chinese read-out was longer, which is not necessarily to say it covered more ground, but it did spend time talking in detail about issues of importance to Xi Jinping. The Chinese readout also had a more personal feel, speaking at times in Xi’s distinctive voice, quoting some of his characteristically aphoristic ideas. 

“First, peace must be valued.

Second, stability must be prioritized.

Third, credibility must be upheld.” 

What is described as “Xi-plomacy” in China Daily and other state media comes out sounding like pithy apothegms in English: 

-  America’s adherence to points one, two and three in turn will help turn “the San Francisco vision into reality.” 

-  “The two countries should respect each other, coexist in peace and pursue win-win cooperation.” 

The Chinese readout has a distinct teacherly tone, and in that sense it sounds more like the readout of a real phone call than the smooth diplomatic summary of talking points offered by the U.S. side. 

As Xi says, “The relationship should continue moving forward in a stable, sound and sustainable way, rather than going backward.” 

In several instances, one can detect veiled warnings contained inside China’s diplomatic reservoir of goodwill:  

“The Taiwan question is the first red line that must not be crossed in China-U.S. relations.” 

The readout also takes to task the very essence of U.S. diplomatic language when it singles out “de-risking”—a term carefully calibrated by the U.S. side to avoid the more consequential term “decoupling”—and makes a mockery of it, suggesting that de-risking “is creating risks.” 

The jujitsu take-down of the term “de-risking” is further underscored by a vaguely menacing remark about the potential consequences if the U.S. persists in taking the wrong course. Should the U.S. continue to be “adamant on containing China’s hi-tech development and depriving China of its legitimate right to development, China is not going to sit back and watch.” 

The readout provided by China also includes a slyly-edited take on some of Biden’s comments. It’s not so much a case of misquoting as it is taking things out of context and stringing them together in a way that sounds more like the Chinese Foreign Ministry than the U.S. State Department: 

“President Biden reiterated that the United States does not seek a new Cold War, its objective is not to change China’s system, its alliances are not targeted against China, the U.S. does not support ‘Taiwan independence’, and the U.S. does not seek conflict with China. The U.S. follows the one-China policy. It is in the interest of the world for China to succeed.” 

The One-China Policy is a shared plank of both sides, a clever diplomatic term that has allowed the two countries to function despite nuanced differences in outlook ever since the days of the Shanghai Communique. It’s a simple formulation but it’s done a lot of heavy lifting in the decades since, allowing Beijing and Washington to appear to be in total agreement when hidden differences abound. The devil is in the details and shifting interpretations of what means what. 

The White House readout doesn’t once mention the One China Policy, which is not to say it didn’t come up, for it has become an incantatory ritual to make mention of it in bilateral meetings. But the U.S. readout chose to deal with it only obliquely, by gently reminding China that while peaceful reunification is to be embraced, belligerent measures to achieve the same goal violate the spirit of the tacit agreement between both sides. 

What’s more, the U.S. got in a jab that indirectly raises the issue of Sino-Philippine tensions and other potential flashpoints in the South China Sea: 

“President Biden emphasized the importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and the rule of law and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.”  

U.S. China strategy historically places great stock in summit talks, military-to-military talks, hot-lines, track two diplomacy and open lines of communication. 

A White House backgrounder held before the phone call was placed stated U.S. intent explicitly: 

“At Woodside, the two leaders agreed to maintain regular open lines of communication to responsibly manage competition and prevent unintended conflict.  And this phone call really is just part of that ongoing effort.” 

So the phone call was a good one, or a not so good one, depending on how you parse it. Maybe even a “win-win.” 

For it’s almost certainly to the benefit of both sides that the two leaders are talking, despite tensions and some serious points of disagreement.

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