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By walking the length of a long hall to greet President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, on November 14, US President Joe Biden ceded the optics to the Chinese helmsman. The warming up to China was long expected in view of wintry ties with Russia over NATO’s expansion to its doorstep in Ukraine, and the economic sanctions that boomeranged into an energy-food-fertiliser crisis in the world, especially Europe. The decision of President Vladimir Putin to skip the G20 made the Washington-Beijing diplomacy less awkward.
Taiwan, previously relegated to the backburner under the US’s acceptance of the One China Policy but retrieved from the closet as tensions over trade escalated with Beijing, has de facto receded to the background again. With its armaments inventory seriously depleted by the Russia-Ukraine hostilities, Washington is unlikely to confront mainland China over Taiwan, despite the rhetoric.
The Guardian reported that though Biden had a cold, the “notoriously Covid paranoid” Xi shook his hand. Smiling for the cameras, both leaders showed a desire for “a better working relationship.” Alluding to the cool bilateral ties between the two nations, Xi said global expectations require the leaders of the two superpowers should act as a ship’s rudder and “chart the right course” and “elevate the relationship”. Biden in turn pointed out that China’s Taiwan policy was ‘aggressive’.
The White House readout of the hour-long meeting stated that while the United States would continue to compete with the PRC, the two nations should manage the competition responsibly and maintain open lines of communication to avoid conflict. President Biden urged that they work together to tackle transnational challenges such as climate change, global macroeconomic stability including debt relief, health security, and global food security.
Biden expressed concerns about Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, and human rights in general. On Taiwan, he reiterated opposition to unilateral changes to the status quo, and called for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. He mentioned US’s concerns about China’s non-market economic practices that harm American workers and families, as also around the world, and said American citizens who are wrongfully detained or subject to exit bans in China are a priority for the US.
As the US President mentioned Russia’s military action against Ukraine and alleged threats to use nuclear force, Presidents Biden and Xi reiterated their opposition to a nuclear war and the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Biden further mentioned North Korea’s provocations and emphasised Washington’s commitment to defend its Indo-Pacific Allies.
Xi in turn informed Biden that Taiwan is at the “very core of China’s core interests” and blamed the US for stirring discord. Both leaders agreed to “empower key senior officials” to discuss areas of potential cooperation, including tackling the climate crisis, and maintaining global financial, health and food stability. It may be recalled that China had suspended climate change talks after US House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, visited Taiwan in August 2022.
A critical source of irritation for Beijing is the Biden administration’s moves to ban the export of chips, the possibility of a “trade war or a technology war,” and the disrupting of supply chains. The Chinese readout of the meeting was silent on America’s criticism of Russia’s war with Ukraine, but said China “supports and looks forward to a resumption of peace talks between Russia and Ukraine” and “at the same time hopes the US, NATO and the EU will conduct comprehensive dialogues with Russia.”
Xi was firm about Beijing’s interests in Taiwan and countered concerns over human rights stating, “no country has a perfect democratic system” and “just as the United States has American-style democracy, China has Chinese-style democracy, both fit their respective national conditions.”
It may be recalled that President Xi attended the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, in September 2022, where he met Russian President Putin. China has been tense over not being informed about Moscow’s impending action in Ukraine when Xi and Putin met in Beijing in February 2022, just 20 days before the military action, as it put Chinese nationals then living in Ukraine in danger. Some are said to have died during the evacuation, though numbers are hard to ascertain in the absence of an official statement.
Putin has since admitted that he did not confide in Xi, but insisted that the strength of the relationship with China was “unprecedented”. Interestingly, since the special military operation began in Ukraine, Xi has called or met Putin at least thrice, but not spoken with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy even once.
Beijing values its proximity to Russia given America’s moves to derail its economy through trade and technology sanctions, particularly its access to semiconductors that are vital for the development of next-generation technologies.