A three-dimensional game: US president and Chinese leader (virtually) meet

A three-dimensional game: US president and Chinese leader (virtually) meet
From left: US President Joe Biden. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Chris Kleponis / Pool) | Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Photo: Aris Messinis / AFP / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Monday’s virtual meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping would be a conversation worth being a fly on the wall for, for sure.

By the time US and Chinese leaders Joe Biden and Xi Jinping have spoken by virtual conferencing on Monday evening (scheduled for 7.45pm Washington, DC, time; 2.45am Tuesday, South African time), for their leaders’ summit, there will have been happiness the two leaders did not bare their teeth, growl, and threaten “fire and fury” at each other. 

But there will also have been some disappointment on the part of a few, stemming from the more stolid reality that no historic agreements were sealed over the substantive issues that divide the two nations. This meeting, albeit via its unusual format this time around, actually conforms to the practice of recent years that the leaders of the two nations meet in the first year of a new US presidential administration. 

Still, this time around, there have been no intimations that the veritable fate of the world depends on two men feinting across a potential abyss of global destruction, in the manner of those tense, riveting duels of words between Soviet and US leaders throughout the Cold War. For a brief summit history from the perspective of the first full-on Biden-Putin summit, see: Biden-Putin meeting: A brief history of summitry

In contrast to the alarming possibilities and realities (such as the Cuban missile crisis and, earlier, and linked to it, the Bay of Pigs landing) that evolved out of the President John Kennedy-Premier Nikita Khrushchev meeting in Vienna, that embarrassing meeting between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump in Helsinki, or the tantalising possibilities that glimmered with the Ronald Reagan-Mikhail Gorbachev encounter of the “walk in the woods” that even became a stage play, US-China leader encounters have generally been rather different. The Nixon-Mao summit, after all, led to John Adams’ successful opera Nixon in China, not just a play, for one thing. 

Biden and Xi have actually met each other over the years before Biden became president. And, in the year since he was elected to that office, they have talked by phone several times. While Biden has carried out a few international trips, Xi, meanwhile, has not engaged in any international travel once the Covid pandemic crisis broke in full fury. 

The US-China relationship thus is rather different from the Cold War version of the US-Soviet dynamic. For one thing, the economies of the US and China are deeply and broadly intertwined in ways very different from the rather slight economic interconnections that were true between the US and the Soviet Union and that had persisted throughout the entirety of the Cold War. For that relationship, the two nations’ interactions came almost entirely in the arena of security and defence — from the late 1940s until the dissolution of the Soviet Union. 

This confrontation sometimes even included the threat of nuclear destruction or the demise of the West, something along the lines of Khrushchev’s famous promise, delivered at the UN, but directed at the US, “We will bury you; your children will live under communism.” They don’t, of course. Instead, the children of the people spoken of by Khrushchev are now increasingly engrossed in a nasty social divide about such esoteric topics as Critical Race Theory’s impact on kindergarten lesson plans, or whether anti-Covid virus masks will be the ruination of the nation and that inevitable, horrifying turn towards socialism and dictatorship.

Accordingly, one wonders what the Chinese are making of such social disharmony in the US — and if, in turn, it has impelled them to squelch even the faintest signs of any of their own potential social disharmonies, and fuelling the drive to turn Xi’s thoughts on society and the economy fully into the language of the country’s Constitution. And, of course, how those perceptions would affect their leader’s virtual meeting style with Biden. 

In the run-up to Monday’s virtual conversation between the two men, analysts and commentators have been trying to determine the way this conversation will fit into the larger US-China relationship, as well as any new wrinkles for the US national strategy towards China during Biden’s presidency. The view of what is an appropriate background for any strategy seems to be a contest between several rather different ways of examining the relationship. These views largely seem rooted in three rather divergent camps. 

First, a fairly small group of analysts and commentators (but whose writings have recently triggered a rather snarky analysis on RT, the Russian broadcaster’s website, that tried to portray it as the consensus view in the US policy community in an attempt to stir the pot). In this view, the texture of the US-China bilateral relationship is one that almost inevitably will lead to outbreaks of actual hostilities, stemming from an interwoven texture of economic and security issues, and embraced by the US before the balance of power shifts. Moreover, given current trajectories of weapons development, the Chinese might well come out on top — so place your bets now. 

One serious riposte to that view comes from Harvard University professor and former senior defence department official Joseph Nye, who took issue with a slightly more benign idea that there is a new US-China Cold War springing into life. As Nye recently wrote in The New York Times, “A new idea is gaining currency among some politicians and policymakers in Washington: The United States is in a Cold War with China. It’s a bad idea — bad on history, bad on politics, bad for our future.”

Nye added, “Competition with China, though, is a three-dimensional game. And if we continue to play two-dimensional chess, we will lose. While neither the conflict with the Soviet Union nor the current competition with China has led to all-out combat, the games are very different. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was a direct military and ideological threat to the United States. We had almost no economic or social connections: Containment was a feasible objective. 

“Because the game was based on a simple two-dimensional premise — that the only fight was between their respective militaries — each side depended on the other not to pull the trigger. But with China, the three-dimensional game features a distribution of power at each level — military, economic and social — not just one. 

“That is why the Cold War metaphor, although convenient, is lazy and potentially dangerous. It obscures and misleads us by underestimating the real challenge we face — and offering ineffective strategies.” 

The real challenge, therefore, comes from the highly complex nature of China’s economic and political challenge, abetted by aspects of military competition. 

A second orienting perspective centres on the relationship as a function of those very deep, very pervasive economic ties, including exports and imports as well as the presence of one country’s companies in the other; reciprocally, that collectively is the system sometimes dubbed the state of “Chimerica.” In such a view, those brakes (or golden chains, perhaps) are what will almost inevitably pull the bilateral relationship away from any kind of brink because of the sum total of and the synergies between all those mutual economic benefits that flow from those interconnections. 

A third perspective — an approach closer to the broader consensus among many, perhaps most, analysts — argues that despite these deep economic connections, the bilateral tensions have reached a dangerous zone precisely because of non-economic issues that spill over and exacerbate economic and trade disputes.

This litany of such issues with public footprints includes the threatened security circumstances of Taiwan, the harsh treatment of large numbers of Muslim Uighurs in northwestern China and Tibetans in their region, the increasing degradation of those treaty-guaranteed freedoms in Hong Kong, and the rise and rise of those Chinese military installations in the South China Sea. There is also, of course, in the US, and Western nations more generally, along with the World Health Organization, growing disgruntlement over China’s less than open, transparent behaviour in assisting in a full investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 virus, following its initial outbreak in China. 

Largely giving voice to this third perspective and thus the challenges in reaching any larger mutual accommodations, has been commentator/journalist Fareed Zakaria. In his most recent GPS blog post, and in his Sunday GPS broadcast, he explored the potential for contradictions between various US foreign policy goals vis-à-vis China. As the newsletter said, “…Fareed gives his take on a new agreement by the US and China to cooperate on climate change — and whether that’s possible, given their superpower rivalry. The pledge is a positive step — if a small one — but it also points to a fundamental question for US foreign policy. Fareed says: ‘Should it be focused on solving the largest and most challenging global problems, or should it be focused on competing with China?’ 

“It’s not clear how the Biden administration is balancing cooperation and openness with the ‘extreme competition’ it has embraced vis-à-vis Beijing, Fareed says. When Fareed asked US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan how the US is approaching China, Sullivan said the US wants both to ensure [that] the international order advantages democracies and to keep it free and open. That will be difficult, Fareed says, warning: ‘To my mind, the central lesson of the Cold War is that what allowed the United States to ultimately prevail… was building an open international system that secured peace, prosperity and freedom and allowed all who participated to thrive and prosper. It would be a tragedy if that central achievement of American foreign policy were to be sacrificed just to gain some temporary tactical advantage against Beijing.’ ”

Similarly, Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister and now president of the US’s Asia Society, wrote in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, “Officials in Washington and Beijing don’t agree on much these days, but there is one thing on which they see eye to eye: the contest between their two countries will enter a decisive phase in the 2020s. This will be the decade of living dangerously. No matter what strategies the two sides pursue or what events unfold, the tension between the United States and China will grow, and competition will intensify; it is inevitable. War, however, is not. It remains possible for the two countries to put in place guardrails that would prevent a catastrophe…” 

From China’s perspective, of course, things may be a bit different, framed by some divergent views about the international context. The competition between the two nations must surely rest on both economic and security/defence legs.

As The Guardian reported it, “For Xi, his biggest vulnerability is on the economic front. That’s why Beijing has been signalling its interest in making progress on trade. Recent comments from Biden administration officials suggest there is interest in engaging on these issues, but again there are likely to be significant political constraints,” said Scott Moore, director of China programmes and strategic initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania. 

The Guardian went on to note, “Both leaders will seek to limit the dangers of the rivalry spiralling out of control. In a message to the National Committee on US-China Relations, Xi said that the bilateral relationship was at a ‘critical historical juncture. Both countries will gain from cooperation and lose from confrontation. Cooperation is the only right choice,’ Xi said in his statement.” 

The Chinese must be thinking carefully about how their economic model will, over the longer run, despite speed bumps like the dangerous, tottering circumstances of property/construction/manufacturing giant Evergrande, be in the winner’s circle in contrast to the seemingly chaotic economic processes at work in the US.

The Chinese model, with its “imperial” technocratic elite guiding investment for maximal benefit in adhering to Xi’s thoughts on economics, has, at least since Deng Xiaoping’s time, demonstrated tangible improvements for hundreds of millions, turning the country into the global factory, producing everything from Christmas tchotchkes to state-of-the-art electric-powered automobiles and hypersonic missiles. Moreover, from the Chinese perspective, US responses through tariffs, sanctions on key corporations and other trade restrictions would be seen as largely petulant, foot-stamping responses to China’s success. 

As a result, on the security side of the chart, presumably from the Chinese perspective, the US’s fear of China’s economic success ends up being visibly demonstrated by the US’s continuing engagement with Taiwan and pointed criticisms of the treatment of Uighurs and Hong Kong (involving itself in internal affairs), its own increasingly provocative naval moves in the South China Sea, and, of course, its support for the formation of the Quad alliance (India, Japan, Australia and the US), and for the new Aukus accord (the US, Australia and the UK). 

Given these obvious disagreements, what can the two men possibly discuss, other than the weather? First, of course, they can engage in a bit of self-congratulation over their two nations’ willingness to engage in some cooperation at the just-ended COP26 in Scotland. They may even speak about expanding that cooperative style, especially since they are, taken together, the top two global carbon polluters on the planet. Perhaps there will be proposals for joint committees to figure out new projects to support, other places to assist, and additional research to carry out jointly, the kind of thing adults do when they sit down to sort out disagreements. 

Second, there may well be yet another committee or commission or some other form of consulting mechanism regarding some (but not all) of the security and defence questions noted above. This certainly does not mean they will end their disagreements, but it can show that harsh rhetoric and angry words — or even deeds — with one part of that roster of disagreements will not inevitably bleed into all the other ones. 

Third, there is even the possibility of some sort of consultative mechanism — or at least to look for one — between the two nations that would be designed to at least limit the damage from current economic tensions that range from cybersecurity to charges of intellectual property theft to predatory pricing, product dumping and similar ways around the usually agreed-upon mechanisms of the WTO, the World Trade Organisation. What is unlikely to be resolved will be criticism of how human rights and related issues internally in China will be accepted by China or tempered by the US, because the two nations are coming from such different positions. 

Of course, the success of this meeting will depend on perfectly functioning technology for this internet-based conversation — with none of those dreaded pop-ups that say things like “your internet connection is unstable” or worse. No pressure on the technology managers, none at all, with the entire world waiting to find out how it all went. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted