Biden and Xi calm world, but US, China still on collision course: experts

Biden and Xi calm world, but US, China still on collision course: experts


Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping both sought to bring the temperature down between the United States and China during a rare summit, but few analysts are expecting a deeper easing in tensions.

After three hours of talks in Bali, Biden said there need not be a new Cold War between the two powers, and Xi told him China does not challenge the international order.

The White House said Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit China, the first visit by the top US diplomat in more than four years.

Biden “sent a reassuring message and the Chinese gauge was glowing positively. That alone shows both sides’ interest in improving ties,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center in Washington.

But aside from the shared hope of avoiding worst-case scenarios and direct clashes, she said the two powers have very different views on what a more stable relationship means, particularly in hotspot Taiwan.

“If we expect this summit to miraculously save that relationship and restore it to a better place, I think we need to see more concrete action,” she said.

The Wilson Center’s Rui Zhong described the Bali summit as “maintenance work” and said even Blinken’s visit could result in “treading water” more than breakthroughs.

Moreover, at the first face-to-face summit between the two nations’ presidents since 2019, each side had an interest in downplaying friction.

Biden and Xi attended the Group of 20 summit, with host Indonesia inviting leaders of other Southeast Asian nations, some of which have naval conflicts with China.

“For Xi, the perception of regional stability is still something he would like to hold on to,” Zhong said. “China’s growth and weight has long been a concern of Southeast Asia’s smaller nations.”

“Xi gains nothing by coming across as overly cold, inflexible and unnecessarily hawkish towards Biden, at least when he’s face-to-face.”

For Biden, the most urgent diplomatic priority was reining in Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, and he has trumpeted what he sees as China’s wavering support for nominal ally Moscow, including a refusal to send weapons.

The White House said Xi agreed with Biden on “the opposition to the use or threat to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine,” a phrase missing from China’s statement.

– deep suspicion –

Whatever their message to the world, both powers have deep distrust of each other’s intentions.

The Biden administration, in a national security strategy released last month, named China the only power capable of challenging US supremacy and strove to ensure the United States maintained a “competitive advantage,” including in new technologies.

Deng Xiaoping, who led China’s modernization in the 1980s, famously said his country should “wait and see” and focus on its rise, rather than immediately challenging other powers.

US politicians widely see China as newly assertive under Xi, the country’s most powerful leader in decades, who has just secured a third precedent-seeking term.

Rush Doshi, a China adviser to Biden who attended the Bali talks, wrote in a 2019 book when he was no longer in government that Xi saw historic opportunities because of what he saw as Western decline, evidenced by the rise of Donald Trump, Britain’s exit from the European Union and the response to the pandemic.

China’s strategy involves “blunting and building global efforts to oust the United States as world leader,” he wrote.

– Focus on Taiwan –

One area where ties could sour quickly is Taiwan, Beijing’s claimed self-governing democracy that is fueling passion on both sides.

Biden’s Republican rivals were quick to attack his diplomacy, and hawkish Senator Tom Cotton said the “naive return to appeasement policies will harm the United States, endanger Taiwan and further embolden Xi Jinping.”

Biden told reporters he understood Xi would not launch an “immediate” invasion of Taiwan, but Xi again warned against supporting Taiwan’s “independence.”

China held major military drills in Taipei in August after a defiant visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the second in line of the presidency.

Republican Kevin McCarthy, who could become the next speaker after last week’s vote count, has made it clear he will also visit Taiwan.

After Biden’s assurances, Xi “may have a little more leeway not to overreact” to a McCarthy visit, Sun said.

“But even then, I doubt the Chinese can afford not to react harshly.”

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