An optimist would say that at least they met, a pessimist that at the most they met – and then only virtually, online. Little concrete came out of the meeting between Joe Biden, President of the United States, and Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). And neither side would have expected it. But after the years of President Donald Trump’s unpredictability and the poor start of the Anchorage meeting in March 2021 when Anthony Blinken, US Secretary of State, and Yang Jiechi, the CCP’s most senior foreign affairs official, traded diplomatic ‘un-niceties’, the tone, if not the content, of the meeting will have helped, as Xi called for, to pave the way for future exchanges ‘at all levels and in all areas’ between powers with increasingly divergent agendas.
The backdrop, tone and generalities
Commentators like to make much of the importance of personal relations in diplomacy. As vice-presidents of their respective countries, Biden and Xi had long meetings and chats. While it is true that a personal dislike can hinder understanding – even leaders are human – it is wrong to think in the context of the CCP that friendship exists or influences talks. Biden and Xi are not Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, two politicians of very similar views. It is unwise for top CCP leaders to have foreign friends and open themselves to accusations of not following completely the interests of the People’s Republic of China (PRC); moreover, the interposing of interpreters and decades between meetings dampens ardour.
The American read-out of the meeting was short and factual. By contrast the Chinese was expansive. For the CCP, the meeting had two major aims. As usual for any negotiation at the start of a long-term relationship with a new opposite number, the CCP wanted to put down a set of principles. The aim is that if future US behaviour diverts from CCP desiderata, then the PRC can declare that the US is at fault for departing from agreed principles. The second aim was domestic: the CCP wishes to show its people that it is now the equal of the US, that its policies are correct, that the PRC is ‘great again’ (and therefore the party is to be cherished).
The Chinese press has made much of the ‘three principles and four priorities’ laid out by Xi at the meeting as ‘the right way for China and the United States to get along in the new era’. The principles are:
- Mutual respect and treating each other as equals: for each other’s social systems and development paths, core interests (defined in a press conference as ‘Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet and maritime issues’;
- Peaceful coexistence, no conflict or confrontation;
- ‘Win-win’ cooperation.
Behind these CCP tropes lie respectable points laid out in the four priority areas (in the stilted language of the CCP):
- Shouldering responsibilities of major countries and leading global response to outstanding challenges;
- Moving forward exchanges at all levels and in all areas to generate more positive energy for relations;
- Managing differences and sensitive issues in a constructive way to prevent relations from getting derailed or out of control;
- Strengthening coordination and cooperation on major international and regional hotspot issues to provide more public goods to the world.
The CCP also used the meeting to advance its domestic propaganda aims. The subsequent press briefing put emphasis on Xi’s explanation to Biden of the Sixth Plenum and its ‘historical resolution’. With breathtaking hypocrisy (‘politicising health issues does no good but great harm’), after underlining the PRC’s successes over Covid-19, Xi called for greater global cooperation on the disease and health issues, despite the CCP’s blocking of any meaningful inquiry into the origins of the pandemic, which might be crucial for preventing future threats to global health. His call for the establishment of a cooperation mechanism may go down well with his own people, but hardly with the US, when foreign scientists have not been given sufficient access to analyse the origins of Covid-19. Xi also talked up the PRC’s contribution to climate change reduction.
As usual, the CCP explained to its people that the PRC was dealing with recalcitrant others: ‘It is hoped that President Biden will demonstrate political leadership and steer America’s China policy back on the track of reason and pragmatism’ and ‘We hope that the US side can meet its word of not seeking a “new Cold War” with concrete actions’, a point Xi underlined with his talk of ‘Aggression or hegemony is not in the blood of the Chinese nation’, a view which may perhaps not commend itself to Korea (1950) or Vietnam (1979).
This blame of others was echoed by the CCP tabloid the Global Times: Xi had demonstrated ‘Beijing’s high-minded manner and full confidence in pushing Washington to correct mistakes that have led the bilateral relationship to deviate in recent years…’. And it could not resist the sly dig that the meeting ‘came at the request of the US’, evoking images of foreign tribute bearers to the celestial court. That the meeting was online at least removed the issue of which president had to travel to which country.
Little agreement on areas of substance
The areas covered in the meeting are not redolent of cooperation. Energy security and climate change aside – and both the US and the PRC have failed to gain plaudits for their last-minute agreement on climate change at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) – most areas discussed are ones of contention.
Prime among them was Taiwan. Both sides laid out their positions, with as usual the CCP misrepresenting the US stance. The Americans have never agreed to Beijing’s so-called ‘One China Policy’: the US has always carefully said that it ‘acknowledges’ that Beijing has its policy, but has refrained from endorsing it. If comfort is to be taken, perhaps Xi’s inclusion of the word ‘patience’ shows that the use of force to seize Taiwan is not contemplated imminently. Taiwan remains the most acute issue between the US and the PRC.
Other areas discussed are also ones of considerable differences. Biden complained of unfair trade practices, Xi of US attempts to suppress Chinese companies. Human rights, focussing on Tibet, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang will always be points of friction, so too freedom of navigation and overflights. On regional issues, North Korea, Afghanistan and Iran, CCP and US interests are divided.
Low expectations have been met. The meeting was at least a start. There may be other meetings next year between Biden and Xi, but they are likely to remain online. Xi has not travelled abroad since the Covid-19 pandemic started and is not likely to until late 2022 at the earliest, both because of preoccupation with the Party Congress and because, after the Covid-19 propaganda campaign, he simply cannot afford to contract the disease and thereby undermine the CCP line. Biden too has a heavy domestic agenda next year.
The hope is that this week’s meeting provides a green light for discussions and negotiations at other levels, which can maximise cooperation in areas where the two powers must get on for their own and the global good. But that cooperation, maximised or not, will necessarily remain narrower than in the past. The divergence of their systems – political, economic and in terms of values – continues to accelerate.
Charles Parton is a James Cook Associate Fellow in Indo-Pacific Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He spent 22 years of his 37-year diplomatic career in the British Diplomatic Service working in or on China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Embedded image credit: Palácio do Planalto (CC BY-SA 3.0)
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