Despite tensions between the U.S. and China on the economic and political fronts, leaders from both countries found some common ground during their recent meeting in Bali. Presidents Biden and Xi have reiterated their commitment to work together to address transnational challenges, avoid conflict with each other, and maintain open communication.
What a difference a single week can make in Indo-Pacific geopolitics. Up until last month, the trajectory of Sino-American competition seemed extremely troubling. Not only had the Biden administration imposed a new set of punitive measures against China’s critical economic sector, but the White House as well as the Pentagon had also just released a series of strategic policy documents, which unequivocally painted the Asian superpower as a hostile and implacable rival to be contained.
Meanwhile, Southeast Asian nations remained deeply divided over multiple crises in their own backyard, namely the ongoing Myanmar civil war and East Timor’s long-pending membership application. Crucially, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have been fretting over the troubling direction of the U.S.-China rivalry in the region. No less than Singapore's prime minister-in-waiting Lawrence Wong warned of the possibility of the two superpowers “sleepwalk[ing] into conflict.”
The month of November, however, resulted in a positive diplomatic outlook, largely thanks to the back-to-back summits hosted by Southeast Asian nations. During their much-anticipated meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia, U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese paramount leaderXi Jinping signaled their sincere commitment to a long-term détente against the backdrop of structurally-inevitable competition between the 21st century’s two most powerful nations.
By all indications, the U.S. and China are committed to avoiding an all-out conflict and a full-blown ‘New Cold War’ for the foreseeable future. This is great news not only for the two superpowers but also for the broader Indo-Pacific region, as well as the future of global governance. Nevertheless, increasingly aggressive technological competition between the two superpowers, especially in cutting-edge technologies, presents a long-term challenge to sustained economic development in Asia.
Peering into Abyss
In retrospect, the Bali Détente shouldn’t have come as a surprise. On one hand, both Biden and Xi were operating from a position of strength, especially at home. While President Xi had just secured a third presidential term during the 20th Communist Party Congress, the U.S. president avoided a widely-expected midterms setback. If anything, Biden’s performance, via his legislative allies in Congress, who managed to maintain their majority in the Senate just to narrowly lose the House, was the best by any Democratic president in more than halfacentury.
Secure at home, at least for the foreseeable future, both leaders were in an ideal position to exercise global statesmanship. In fact, just a day before his much-vaunted meeting with Xi, Biden promised Southeast Asian nations during the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, that he is, per a statement by the White House, singularly determined to “keeping lines of communication open and ensuring competition does not veer into conflict.”
Encouraged by the U.S. president’s pragmatism, Southeast Asian nations upgraded the U.S.-ASEAN relations into a “comprehensive strategic partnership,” a status attained by Beijing last year, which paves the way for institutionalized cooperation across a whole range of strategically vital issues. Meanwhile, Southeast Asian nations also called on external partners, including the U.S. and China, to assist the regional body in addressing the festering crisis in Myanmar, where a brutal civil war has presented an existential crisis to ASEAN.
Recognizing the importance of superpower cooperation, rather than blind competition, Biden and Xi met in Indonesianot long after the ASEAN summit in neighboring Cambodia. The meeting seemed both cordial and mutually respectful. But beyond good optics, both leaders projected strategic sincerity and global statesmanship to everyone’s delight.
Right off the bat, Biden made it clear that statesmanship was crucial to preventing the two superpowers from “veer[ing] into conflict” and, thus, “the United States and China must manage the competition responsibly and maintain open lines of communication.” On his part, the Chinese leader acknowledged, “the current state of China-U.S. relations is not in the fundamental interests of the two countries and peoples, and is not what the international community expects.”
Accordingly, the two superpowers underscored their shared commitment to “work[ing] together to address transnational challenges” such as climate change, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and post-pandemic recovery, since “that is what the international community expects [from the U.S. and China].”
The Other Big Challenge
Interestingly, the two superpowers also managed to find a modus vivendi over the Ukraine conflict. Though adopting completely opposite paradigms on the origins of the current crisis, both Xi and Biden warned against nuclear escalation by Russia and reiterated the importance of a peaceful resolution of the ongoing conflict.
According to a statement by the White House, both leaders “reiterated their agreement that a nuclear war should never be fought and can never be won and underscored their opposition to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.” The ongoing crisis in Europe, which has affected global commodity and energy markets, was a top concern during the G20 summit.
As Indonesian President Joko Widodo, the current G20 chairman who has tried to mediate between Russia and Ukraine in recent months, admitted, “The discussion on this was very, very tough and by the end the G20 leaders agreed on the content of the declaration, which was the condemnation of the war in Ukraine because it has violated country borders and integrity."
In their joint declaration, G20 nations, excluding Russia, declared, “[i]t is essential to uphold international law and the multilateral system that safeguards peace and stability.” A few days later, during the summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in Bangkok, Thailand, member nations made an essentially identical joint statement, reflecting a growing regional consensus on the need for de-escalation of the crisis in Ukraine.
By and large, the November summits in Southeast Asia managed to soothe growing anxieties over the trajectory of Sino-American relations, especially after the tit-for-tat military drills and naval deployments in Asia waters following U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August.
But while the prospect of actual warfare between the two superpowers has dramatically receded following the Xi-Biden meeting, there should be no room for strategic complacency. To begin with, strategic competition between the U.S. and China will inevitably generate a whole range of potential conflicts, which constantly require responsible statecraft and diplomatic intervention. Not to mention, growing protectionist and nationalist sentiments in both Washington and Beijing.
For smaller regional states, even in the absence of a full-blown ‘New Cold War, there are reasons for strategic caution and proactiveness. In mid-November, Singapore hosted a global event, which was organized by the think-tank Peterson Institute for International Economics and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. The ongoing technological war between the U.S. and China was clearly a top source of concern for the high-profile attendees.
In particular, participants worried about the long-term implications of the West’s punitive economic measures against Beijing, especially in the realm of cutting-edge research and innovation. Since China is the top trading partner of much of the world, and a leading source of tech and infrastructure investment in Asia, any ‘digital iron curtain’ would spell disaster for pan-regional supply chains and long-term growth prospects.
In his surprisingly passionate address, Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan warned against tech wars in favor of “a [global] commitment to open science, the fair sharing and harvesting of intellectual property, and a system in which we will compete to be most innovative, reliable and trustworthy, rather than be judged simply by which side we have taken.”
The Southeast Asian diplomat also reiterated regional states’ aversion to being forced to choose between the two superpowers, since “I do not believe any self-respecting Asian country wants to be trapped, or to be a vassal or, worse, to be a theatre for proxy battles. So, I am trying to make the argument for what the rest of the world wants.”