No reboot. Why the virtual meeting between the leaders of the United States and China did not lead to a breakthrough

No reboot. Why the virtual meeting between the leaders of the United States and China did not lead to a breakthrough

Ivan Lebedev

Negotiations between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping did not go the way the Americans wanted. More precisely, in the wrong format. It is no coincidence that the White House stubbornly tried not to call them “summit”, using the definition of “virtual meeting.” The personal diplomacy that Biden has always relied on was limited, but his National Security Assistant Jake Sullivan said it was the best thing in the current situation.
Since due to the pandemic, Xi Jinping has been “restricted to travel abroad” for 21 months, he had to be content with video communication. Who loves these Zoom meetings? However, the meeting of the leaders of the two largest economies in the world – and only the first during the Biden presidency – could not be postponed. Too many mutual claims have accumulated between the United States and China (from the origin of COVID-19 to tariffs in trade), and relations over the past year, contrary to expectations, have only gotten worse. There was talk of a cold war and the danger of an armed conflict. Neverthel-ess, the parties still do not intend to concede to each other in anything, and, acc-ording to the same Sulli-van, “intense rivalry requir-es intensive diplomacy.”
The teleconference between the Roosevelt Room in the White House in Washington (where it was late Monday evening) and one of the halls of the People’s Assembly in Beijing (where it was already Tuesday morning) lasted three and a half hours – longer than planned. The Americans persistently, if not obsessively, warned that no breakthroughs and major achievements should be expected at this virtual meeting. They were not there. If Biden and Xi Jinping, who have known each other well for more than ten years, were able to do something, it would only calm the situation a little and confirm their readiness to continue the dialogue. None of the main irritants in bilateral relations was removed, and practically all controversial issues remained unresolved.
In search of ” protective barriers “
Earlier, Biden had repeatedly said that only unintentional war could be worse than war. Now, at the very beginning of his conversation with Xi Jinping (the first 10 minutes, which were given to reporters to watch), he said that they must “make sure that the rivalry between the two countries does not turn into a conflict – intentional or unintentional.” And for this, it is necessary, guided by common sense, to establish “protective barriers” that will allow openly discussing differences and conduct “direct competition” that does not turn into confrontation. Rivalry must be managed and controlled.
However, it is known that all this Biden already said to his Chinese counterpart last time – during their one and a half hour telephone conversation in early September. Since then, the overall tone of the dialogue between the United States and China has improved slightly, which was confirmed, in particular, by the joint statement of the two countries’ special envoys for climate issues, John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua, at a recent international conference in Glasgow. However, the threat of slipping into conflict did not disappear anywhere, and the American leader had to play this disc again – this time in public.
Biden did not hold a press conference following the summit, but Sullivan said that work will begin to create these same “protective barriers.” Both diplomats and the military will take part in it, however, the presidential aide did not explain what principles, steps or communication channels are in question.
From the brief report of the White House press service, only a few conclusions could be drawn about Taiwan – perhaps the most painful and explosive point in bilateral relations to date. During the talks, Biden confirmed that the United States remains committed to the “one China” policy, that is, it does not recognize the independence of the rebellious island (which is what Beijing wanted to hear again). At the same time, he stressed that the United States opposes “unilateral actions to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” In other words, the United States is against any attempts by the PRC to regain Taiwan by military force.
But this is hardly Beijing’s liking. Such statements, as well as instructions on human rights in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang, are regarded there as blatant interference in internal affairs. Xi Jinping reminded about this: “China naturally protects state sovereignty, security and its own development interests. We hope that the American side will approach the issues related to this with caution.”
Of course, one can approach such questions with caution. But it is hardly possible to agree on them. While Beijing prioritizes state sovereignty, Washington stands for “a world order based on common rules.” There are obvious ideological differences between the two sides, multiplied by serious differences in their socio-political structure. And there is no reason to expect that in the foreseeable future any of them will retreat from their position.
Disappointment and distrust
The two leaders approached this meeting with different political backgrounds. According to polls, Biden’s activities as president are now approved by only about 43% of voters – the lowest indicator during his entire time in power. And the fact that other politicians, including Republican Donald Trump, have even lower ratings is little consolation for him. There will be a midterm congressional election next year, and losing control of the Senate or House of Representatives would be disastrous for Democrats. Therefore, Biden needs achievements in domestic and foreign policy, and it is no coincidence that right before the virtual meeting with Xi Jinping, the White House arranged a magnificent ceremony for the president to sign a large-scale bill on the modernization of national infrastructure (roads, bridges, airports).
Unlike Biden, the PRC chairman can feel at his best. The Plenum of the CPC Central Committee held in Beijing last week passed a resolution on the achievements of the Communist Party celebrating its 100th anniversary, and elevated Xi Jinping to the pantheon of communist leaders almost on a par with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. It is expected that after the XX Congress of the CPC, scheduled for the second half of 2022, he will remain for a third term in top government and party posts.
It is easy to see that the political calendar in both countries is not very conducive to the settlement of controversial issues. Both leaders have to demonstrate toughness. In addition, Biden is under intense congressional pressure. He “operates in a political environment filled with suspicion, frustration and animosity between the two parties towards China,” former Special Assistant to the President for Asian Affairs Danny Russell said in Foreign Affairs magazine.
China reciprocates with the United States in the same frustration and mistrust.
How could it be otherwise, if American policy in China has hardly changed over the year and has remained the same as it was under Trump? And what should Beijing think if, with all Washington’s assurances of adherence to the “one China” principle, it turns out that the United States not only openly sells American weapons to Taiwan, but also secretly sent its military instructors there?
However, China also gives the Americans a lot of reasons for concern. For example, in a report from the US Department of Defense, presented recently to Congress, it is noted that by 2030 the PRC may increase the number of its nuclear warheads to one thousand. The rate of increase in the Chinese nuclear arsenal was twice as high as predicted by the Pentagon last year.
Zero-sum game
“Today, each side is convinced of the superiority of its own system and focuses on the weaknesses of the other,” Danny Russell writes in Foreign Affairs. Beijing is confident that the East is developing rapidly, while the West is declining, that time is on their side and that China is reducing its dependence on the outside world, while the latter, on the contrary, is increasing. At the same time, some American experts believe that Xi Jinping does not fully understand what is happening in the rest of the world, and the Chinese economy is experiencing more serious difficulties than it seems at first glance.
There is no consensus among experts in the United States about the approach to the PRC. Indicative in this sense is a poll conducted by Foreign Affairs in October, asking whether “American foreign policy is not too hostile towards China.” Opinions on this matter were divided approximately equally: 32 out of 68 study participants disagreed with this statement, 26 agreed, and 10 took a neutral position.
Dani Rodrik, professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, believes that they can all be divided into two conditional categories: economists and geopolitists.
The former are convinced that the interests of the United States and China are not based on rivalry, but on cooperation, and therefore both countries need to avoid trade wars and strive to resolve contradictions. The latter, on the contrary, see only a competitive struggle everywhere in the world, in which there must inevitably be winners and losers. These include, for example, University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer. In his opinion, “all great powers, whether democracies or not, have no choice but to fight for power, which is essentially a zero-sum game.”
Apparently, this view of China is now prevalent in the United States. Therefore, there is no talk of any kind of reset in relations between the two countries.

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