Analysis: Xi and Biden cool the heat, but China and the US remain on a collision course


The world can breathe a little easier after US President Joe Biden’s talks with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Monday.

But the two superpowers of the 21st century are still on a collision course.

The Indonesian summit yielded two important results, according to the US: a joint position that Russia should not use nuclear weapons in Ukraine and the expected resumption of climate talks between American and Chinese negotiators, a boost to the COP 27 world climate conference. in Egypt

Biden, on the other hand, has informed Xi that he has emphasized that Beijing also has the duty to interfere with the destabilizing missile and nuclear activity of North Korea, which dominates the Pacific Ocean region.

The failure of the world’s two most powerful leaders to address these issues together in recent months shows how the entire world suffers when Washington and Beijing are as far apart as they are this year.

Public statements from both sides also indicate a basic premise that each recognizes the critical nature of their rivalry, and both want to make sure it doesn’t boil over into war, at least not yet. More regular talks are on the way to reopen – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to visit China next year. Such exchanges have stalled since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August and sparked strong Chinese protests and a wide-ranging military operation in a show of growing power to cut off the self-governing island.

Communications between leaders are critical in times of crisis — and any understanding and trust between Xi and Biden could be at stake, for example, if the two sides’ naval forces engage in a clash in the South China Sea. Biden has known Xi for years and being a top channel in Beijing is essential now that his counterpart has become synonymous with the Chinese state itself, with “Xi Jinping’s idea” becoming the official doctrine. The lack of communication between the leaders is one reason why the conflict between Russia and the West in Ukraine is so dangerous.

Leon Panetta – the former White House chief of staff, defense secretary and CIA chief who has covered US-China relations for decades – expressed cautious optimism after talks on the sidelines of the G20 summit.

“If the result of this meeting is to return the relationship to a more diplomatic level, to be able to start a dialogue about the issues that need to be worked on instead of hitting each other, I think that this meeting is very likely. Be substantive,” Panetta told CNN’s John King on “Inside Politics.”

Relations between leaders can set the tone for relations between states. But they are often overestimated by leaders themselves and in post-summit analyses. National interests, not personalities, are driving the dynamic that has led the U.S. and China to each regard each as the main threat to their national security, even if it means Xi may now seize the ultimate power in Beijing with a disruptive third term. They have less immediate political reason to be tough on the US.

But it was clear at the summit in Bali, Indonesia, that while both sides want to avoid conflict, their goals – for China to be a dominant power in Asia and a global powerhouse, like the US – remain fundamentally incompatible.

While Biden said he now understands that China has no immediate plans to invade Taiwan, he chided Xi for Beijing’s “increasing hostility and aggressive actions” toward the island, according to the White House. China’s reading of the talks expressed irritation with a central premise of Biden’s foreign policy: the global clash between democracy and autocracy, and that relations with Beijing are often seen through that prism.

“Neither side should try to shape the other in its own image or try to change or subvert the other’s system,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said.

“Instead of talking one way and acting another, the United States must follow through on its commitments with concrete actions,” the reading added.

Similarly, Xi’s public opinion before the talks said: “A statesman should think and know where to take his country. He should also think and know how it fits with other countries and the wider world,” China is now the world’s it could be seen as an acknowledgment of the new responsibility of the dominant power, but they could also be read as the kind of speech Washington once gave to Chinese leaders, which Xi is now using to push back against the US.

Biden said after the talks that he did not find Xi “more confrontational or conciliatory.” I found it as it has always been: fair and square. … We were very honest with each other about the places where we disagreed or where we were unsure of each other’s position”.

The comments hint at heated disagreements behind closed doors in the most volatile areas of the relationship: Taiwan, trade and human rights, for example. But at least after adding a measure of strategic confusion to the US position on Taiwan with his latest comments suggesting Washington would come to the island’s defense in the event of a Chinese invasion, Biden said he and Xi understood each other’s point of view. they were coming

But there were some signs that the world’s most powerful nations could work together in the wider interests of the planet.

Biden publicly told Xi that the US was ready to re-enter climate talks, just in time for the climate summit in Egypt. After the talks, a White House readout said the two leaders “agreed to empower key officials to maintain communication and deepen constructive efforts” on climate change, global macroeconomic stability, including debt relief, health security and global food security.

It was also important that the US Xi and Biden “reiterated their agreement that nuclear war must never be fought and can never be won, and emphasized their opposition to the use or threat of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.”

Although Beijing has not confirmed Xi’s support for the talks, China’s pursuit of a new friendship with Moscow before the invasion of Ukraine caused alarm in the West. And as top US and Russian officials met in Turkey on Monday, partly on the nuclear issue, the signals emerging from the Xi-Biden talks could be a diplomatic victory for Washington and a reduction from Beijing to Moscow.

Biden’s maneuver is also the latest sign that one goal of his foreign policy is to emphasize differences between Moscow and Beijing. Before leaving for Asia, Biden suggested that China had little respect for either Russian President Vladimir Putin or Russia itself.

So Washington’s foreign policy has come full circle, since Richard Nixon’s motivation for engaging in China during the deep freeze of the Cold War in the 1970s was to open the strategic gaps between Beijing and Moscow.

Things are not so different now, although the dynamic between the Kremlin and Beijing has reversed, with China the global power and Russia the junior partner.