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Foreign Policy

Xi-Biden Talks: A Rare Moment

Nov 25, 2021
  • Sun Zhe

    Co-director, China Initiative, Columbia University; Senior Research Fellow, Institute of State Governance Studies, Beijing University

Does the virtual summit between the leaders of China and the United States portend a better future in bilateral relations? Here is my observation.

First of all, the tone and expression of the two leaders in their greetings were natural, cordial and even friendly. From the opening 10 minutes alone, there was no sense of tension in the China-U.S. relationship at all. When President Xi Jinping sat down and waved, Joe Biden was all smiles and said with apparent sincerity: “Next time, I hope we get to do it face to face like we used to.” Xi picked up the same mood: “Although it’s not as good as a face-to-face meeting, I’m very happy to see my old friend.”

I have always supported and appreciated the diplomatic style of talking frankly and nicely when we have differences, which means that diplomacy is about fighting with wisdom and courage, not with anger. Even if you have to talk tough, you can still “talk while fighting.” But it’s easier said than done, and if one side is stubborn, it might be difficult to exchange views on equal footing. Therefore, the conversation via video could be seen as a rare highlight in China-U.S. relations, following several years of continuous deterioration.

Second, we can read some important messages from both leaders’ short speeches. The key words I understand are managing differences and sharing responsibilities.

In opening remarks, Biden’s speech took seven minutes, while President Xi spoke for four minutes. Biden emphasized four points:

• The nature of the relationship between China and the United States is very simple and clear; it is a competitive relationship that should not veer into conflict.

• Since competition is involved, both sides should establish some common-sense guardrails and maintain bilateral relations. None of this is a favor to either of the two countries — what they do for one another. It’s just responsible world leadership. And the two countries should work together where their interests intersect, especially on issues such as climate change.

• How the bilateral relationship evolves will have a profound impact on the world. Managing it properly involves the well-being of the people at home.

• Both sides must play by the same rules of the road, and the United States is always going to stand up for its interests and values. The U.S. will not shy away from concerns over human rights, economics or the Indo-Pacific region and will be direct about its concerns.

Xi said that China and the United States are currently at critical stages of development, and because humanity shares a global village, we face multiple challenges together. The two countries need to increase communication and cooperation. We should each run our domestic affairs well and, at the same time, shoulder our share of international responsibility and work together to advance the noble cause of world peace and development. This is the shared desire of the people of our two countries and around the world, and the joint mission of Chinese and American leaders.

We can also predict that after this conversation the relationship between China and the United States may not go smoothly. There may yet be storms, and even difficult struggles.

It should be said that both governments actively prepared for the conversation. Not long ago, Xi sent a special congratulatory letter to the 2021 gala dinner of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations stating that “China stands ready to work with the United States to enhance exchanges and cooperation across the board … to bring China-U.S. relations back to the right track of sound and steady development.” 

He emphasized that at this important juncture in history “cooperation is the only right choice” for both countries. In reading the letter, Chinese Ambassador Qin Gang added that China’s policy toward the United States maintains a high degree of continuity and stability.

“Some people say that the China-U.S. relationship cannot go back to what it was before. But is this a reason take it lightly, or even damage it as they wish? We reject this view.” That’s a very good point.

Biden’s letter was read by Jacob Lew, chair of the board of directors of the organization. Lew, a former U.S. treasury secretary who now teaches at Columbia University’s School of International Relations, has been to China many times and is actively involved in dialogue and exchanges with China. Biden stressed in his message: “From tackling the COVID-19 pandemic to addressing the existential threat of the climate crisis, the relationship between the United States and China has global significance.” Therefore, he said, he is willing to work to “seek greater advancement of interests that affect our countries and the world.”

China and the U.S. overcame many hurdles recently — with the personal facilitation of their leaders — to issue the China-U.S. Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s, which commits to more substantive exchanges and cooperation in the clean energy transition, decarbonization and electrification of end-use sectors, the circular economy with renewable resource utilization and methane and CO2 emissions reductions. This at least shows that with sincerity and determination, the two sides can agree on specific areas and highlight global cooperation.

In an interview with CNN, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan recently said that the goal of the Biden administration’s China policy is not to contain or fundamentally transform the Chinese system but to create an environment in which the two powers can coexist in the international system.

This stance is also positive and worthy of recognition. In a way, Sullivan echoed the first of the “three bottom lines” for managing China-U.S. relations proposed by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in July — that the United States must not challenge, denigrate or subvert the socialist path and system with Chinese characteristics.

Of course, our concern now is whether the U.S. will be able to meet the second and third bottom lines — that it will “not attempt to obstruct or interrupt China’s development process" and will “not infringe upon China’s sovereignty or undermine its territorial integrity.”

The situation does not allow much optimism. To illustrate, let me give you two examples.

In one case, J.J. Mearsheimer, a leading American scholar and author of “The Tragedy of the Great Powers,” recently published a weighty article in Foreign Affairs magazine declaring that it’s time to resist China. His central point is that the U.S. has been too good to China, has maintained its “engagement" policy and has been too superstitious in its belief that democracy will win. According to Mearsheimer, the United States could have changed the speed and extent of China’s rise, for example, by not allowing China to join the WTO 20 years ago and not granting China most-favored nation status. Instead the U.S. has created a strong competitor for itself.

The U.S. is now flailing, saying that the China-U.S. relationship is not a new cold war. But in practice it has repeatedly challenged China’s core interests. Mearsheimer has concluded that an inevitable confrontation between the China and U.S. will brew a tragedy in great power politics, so the U.S. must prepare.

This example illustrates how anti-China forces within the United States are distracting the Biden administration. If China continues to develop according to its current political logic, the United States will certainly obstruct or even interrupt the process of China’s development because Biden has repeatedly vowed to defeat China “in a conflict between democracy and autocracy.”

Another example is Democratic Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, who said on Nov. 15 that he wants to include the American Innovation and Competition Act of 2021 — which would strengthen competitiveness against China — in the annual National Defense Authorization Act. This is an alarming attitude on the part of the Democrats. Consider also that some members of Congress from across the aisle have recently introduced new bills against China, including the China Watcher Act, which would provide funding for a new team inside the State Department to monitor, track, analyze and respond to Chinese diplomatic and military activities around the world in preparation for a crackdown on China. This proposal demands that Secretary of State Antony Blinken take more tough actions against China.

Therefore, we predict that there will be no end to U.S. actions in challenging and violating China’s sovereignty and undermining its territorial integrity, especially on the question of Taiwan.

Biden repeatedly stated both before and during the virtual meeting that China and the U.S. have a competitive relationship. China’s officials don’t quite agree with that statement. Some officials have said that China wants the United States to play a golf tournament where each side puts on its best performance, rather than a boxing match in which one side has to pound the other out of the game. The idea is actually asking a lot more of both sides. There are many people who have seen boxing, but there are few people who can understand the rules of golf and the hard work that goes into playing golf well.

Thus, subject to domestic pressure in the future, China and the United States will have little room for mutual concessions. The most likely course for them is a crossover between the two games, with mutual offense and defense and even doing some kind of harm, such as a trade war.

In this sense, President Xi’s words are golden: Cooperation is the only right choice. In fact, cooperation may also be the only choice, whether active or passive. There is no other way. 

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