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The Biden-Xi summit has changed very little. Here’s why

Tom Fowdy
Tom Fowdy

is a British writer and analyst of politics and international relations with a primary focus on East Asia.

is a British writer and analyst of politics and international relations with a primary focus on East Asia.

The Biden-Xi summit has changed very little. Here’s why
The United States and China’s virtual summit is unlikely to achieve anything significant, with President Biden boxed in by the ‘America first’ attitude still prevalent in the US, and Xi Jinping unwilling to make any concessions.

On Monday, Biden and Xi held their ‘virtual summit’, marking the first formalized meeting between the pair since the former took office. 

The summit came amid growing tensions between the two countries on a host of issues, with the importance of managing competition responsibly one of its key themes. The Biden administration has made the conscious decision to continue to see Beijing as the major geopolitical rival of the US, and aims to set the “rules of the road for the 21st century” – in other words, US hegemony. 

Despite this, the official White House readout of the meeting was very carefully worded and spoke of securing “common-sense guardrails to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict.”

What this really means is that although Biden is not pursuing a friendly relationship with China, he hopes to avoid things slipping into a mutually destructive worst-case scenario, which his predecessor Donald Trump seemed quite content to let happen. 

Afterwards, as you would expect, both sides then gave their own version of the substance of the meeting, with both keen to control the narrative on matters such as Taiwan, trade and the general nature of the relationship.

So while China claimed that the US said it does not support independence for Taiwan, Washington went with the line that it “strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” – a clear warning for China.

What the meeting demonstrates is that while both powers have increasingly different agendas, they are nonetheless the world’s two largest individual stakeholders and are mutually constrained by a sense of structural interdependence which obligates them to work with each other to some degree on matters such as economics, climate change and global security. 

Whilst Beijing has always publicly recognized this and has been more open about the need for a balanced relationship with the US, Washington has largely been in a public state of denial about any need to deal pragmatically with China. Under Trump and Biden, it has repeatedly struck a hostile tone and tried to position itself as being tough and uncompromising when engaging with Beijing – even when this is blatantly against America’s interests. 

Biden, individually, may be more prudent than Trump – which is probably why this summit happened in the first place – but he has unquestionably been ‘boxed in’ by the new consensus of US foreign policy set out by his predecessor, giving him little option in practice in how to work with China. 

Given his position, this summit was probably about as cordial as it could be, but still included a US statement complaining about “unfair economic practices.” This amply demonstrates the constant need to justify every positive move with China, a country Trump to all intents and purposes positioned as an enemy of the Americans.

As a result, does this meeting change much? The answer is not really, because mostly it consisted of both sides paying lip service whilst reaffirming their positions, refusing to commit to any form of change or compromise. 

Taiwan is an interesting issue to use as a medium to view this. The US claim that it “does not support Taiwan independence” is not a reassurance or change of course as much as it is a reiteration of its existing position (which it is accused of hollowing out in practice anyway). 

Over the weekend, hawkish pro-Taiwan think tank analyst Bonnie Glaser pointed out in a Twitter conversation that America's claim of “not supporting independence” is deliberately distinct in wording from the notion of “opposing Taiwan independence,” which is how China depicts the American position and is not the stance of the US. In other words, its position is ambiguous, making it an empty reassurance to Beijing. 

Meanwhile, Xi Jinping doubled down on a hardline position, noting that if Tsai Ing-wen’s ruling DPP “provokes the issue” or “crosses the redline, the mainland will have to take resolute measures.” Both sides might not want a disaster in the Taiwan Strait, and might in turn agree not to create one, but what has the summit truly changed? Nothing. Both positions will continue as usual.

All the existing fault lines of the US-China relationship remain, and in turn create the fundamental distrust and apprehension which drives tensions. The US will continue to encourage support for Taiwan; China will continue to demand reunification; the US will continue to militarize China’s periphery through deals like AUKUS; China will continue to respond by building up its nuclear capabilities; and so on.

One summit does not nullify the rivalry or correct its course, but it was never intended to. If Biden wants to make progress, he will need to make concessions to Beijing which will be politically costly to him at home. 

As the most notable example, with surging inflation in America and the initiation of trade dialogue, it is plainly obvious that the US needs to lift tariffs on Chinese goods. But Biden cannot feasibly do so without making concessions to China, and that will be unpopular because the political agenda at home is still locked into the idea of protectionism and ‘America first’.

The tariffs are economically disastrous, but seemingly occupy a sacred position as they are seen to put US jobs first and as being tough on China. Republicans would vilify Biden if they were lifted. In this case, is the White House prepared to take the risk of de-escalating tensions with China further beyond these summits? The dialogue invoked suggests not. 

In conclusion, it has to be said that if actions cannot follow words, this summit will have minimal lasting significance. The two sides met in an attempt to understand each other's red lines, but ultimately only reiterated their positions without addressing directly the issues that have escalated geopolitical rivalry. 

Biden has vowed merely to pursue the same policies, but without the inclination to cause a disaster. Ultimately, though, the status quo that he is pursuing for the US – where effectively the tail wags the dog – will raise tensions anyway. In many instances, the middle ground is gone.

It remains unlikely that Biden has the political space or will to drive the relationship out of the rut it is now in, or that Beijing will compromise on so many issues the US deems now to be unacceptable. 

Even in the midst of the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union managed to pursue a working relationship amidst all the suspicion and tensions, illustrating that the summit has not secured the “common sense guardrails” Biden hoped for – but instead highlighted the issues which have the potency to make things worse are all still unaddressed.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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