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A virtual success: Biden and Xi open a new page with a civilised, grown-up summit in cyberspace

US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping reflected on screen in Beijing, China, on 16 November 2021 during their virtual summit in Beijing, China. (Photo: EPA-EFE / ROMAN PILIPEY)

The first full-scale – but virtual – summit between the US and Chinese presidents is now history. Even if no transcendent moments occurred, by the same token, the two men seem to have had a civil, adult conversation, with key issues in dispute well-aired in this conversation.

On Monday, we provided a scene-setter to understand the context of US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s virtual summit that took place, early in the morning of Tuesday, South African time. 

No one really expected the three-hour meeting to become a transformative event for Sino-American relations. Still, there were modest hopes the meeting and frank talk could help arrest the downward spiral, or even – with a bit of luck – begin to guide this bilateral connection back on track, with less of the rancour that had become standard during the Trump era. 

If those were some rather low bars to serve as goals, the “meeting” can thus be judged a modest success, even if an entirely new page of the bilateral relationship has not been written. 

Still, if the spin doctors are being accurate, nobody behaved like a narcissistic, petulant teenager; and nobody issued open-ended apocalyptic threats (although Xi did some muttering about how people should be careful about starting fires and thus getting burnt in an obvious reference to Taiwan’s circumstances). Apparently, too, the eschatological rhetoric was held in check. We should be happy about this. 

In their opening statements, the two men stuck to the appropriate proprieties. Biden said to his counterpart and the world by the video link, “Next time, I hope we get to do it face to face like we used to when we travelled through China…. I look forward to a candid and forthright discussion like all the discussions we’ve had thus far. 

“As I’ve said before, it seems to me our responsibility as leaders of China and the United States is to ensure that the competition between our countries does not veer into conflict, whether intended or unintended. Just simple, straightforward competition. It seems to me we need to establish some common-sense guardrails, to be clear and honest where we disagree, and work together where our interests intersect, especially on vital global issues like climate change. 

“None of this is a favour to either of our countries – what we do for one another – but it’s just responsible world leadership. And you’re a major world leader, and so is the United States. How our bilateral relationship evolves, seems to me, will have a profound impact not only on our countries but, quite frankly, the rest of the world. 

“We have a responsibility to the world, as well as to our people. It’s why we believe – and you and I have talked about this – all countries have to play by the same rules of the road, why the United States is always going to stand up for our interests and values and those of our allies and partners. 

“If past is prologue, I am sure that today we’ll be discussing those areas where we have concerns – from human rights, to economics, to ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific [region]. And I think it’s very important, as I’ve told other world leaders when they ask about our relationship, is that we have always communicated with one another – with one another very honestly and candidly. And it’s – we never walk away wondering what the other man is thinking…. I look forward to getting down to business and – on the extensive and substantive agenda we have ahead of us. And I thank you very much.” 

In response, Xi replied to his counterpart, “…Right now, both China and the United States are at critical stages of development, and humanity lives in a global village, and we face multiple challenges together. As the world’s two largest economies and permanent members of the UN Security Council, China and the United States need to increase communication and cooperation.  

China and the United States should respect each other, coexist in peace, and pursue win-win cooperation. I stand ready to work with you, Mr President, to build consensus, take active steps, and move China-US relations forward in a positive direction. Doing so would advance the interests of our two peoples and meet the expectation of the international community.

“We should each run our domestic affairs well and, at the same time, shoulder our share of international responsibilities and work together to advance the noble cause of world peace and development. This is the shared desire of the people of our two countries and around the world, and the joint mission of Chinese and American leaders. 

“A sound and steady China-US relationship is required for advancing our two countries’ respective development and for safeguarding a peaceful and stable international environment, including finding effective responses to global challenges such as climate change, which you referenced, and the Covid pandemic. 

“China and the United States should respect each other, coexist in peace, and pursue win-win cooperation. I stand ready to work with you, Mr President, to build consensus, take active steps, and move China-US relations forward in a positive direction. Doing so would advance the interests of our two peoples and meet the expectation of the international community.” 

Once the virtual summit was history, in its first judgments of the meeting, The Washington Post reported, “President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met Monday in a virtual summit that featured no breakthroughs but enabled the two global superpowers to engage on a slew of sensitive issues that have strained ties – including Taiwan, trade and human rights. 

“In a 3½-hour conversation that the White House characterized as ‘respectful and straightforward and… open,’ the two sides did not make pledges or depart from established positions. But the engagement was an acknowledgment that conflict, whether over trade or the South China Sea, can have grave repercussions around the world. 

“Biden raised concerns about China’s suppression of minorities in Xinjiang province, about unfair trade and economic practices and its recent aggression against Taiwan. 

“Xi, according to China’s central broadcaster, offered assurances that China, which has pledged to unify Taiwan with China by force if necessary, would do its ‘utmost’ to achieve peaceful ‘reunification.’  

“The two leaders also discussed the existential nature of the climate crisis and the important roles played by their respective countries, the world’s top two emitters of greenhouse gases. They also talked about how they would continue this engagement in the future.” 

The newspaper’s report added, “…Biden told Xi in brief remarks in front of reporters at the White House before the summit began. ‘Just simple, straightforward competition. It seems to me we need to establish a common-sense guardrail, to be clear and honest where we disagree and work together where our interests intersect, especially on vital global issues like climate change.’ 

“Xi said ideological divides and blocs would bring ‘inevitable calamity’ to the world. ‘The consequences of the Cold War are not far away,’ he said. He added that China was willing to hold dialogues on human rights issues ‘on the basis of mutual respect’ but said Beijing would not support interference in its internal affairs, according to Xinhua News Agency, China’s official news service.” 

That is obviously not exactly a major shift in policy, but it is not precisely one of those lines drawn in the sand by one of those ceremonial swords, either. 

Specifically, with regard to Taiwan, the Post added, “Xi also warned that China would take ‘decisive measures’ against any moves to support Taiwan’s independence from China, whose ruling Chinese Communist Party has never governed Taiwan. ‘Such moves are extremely dangerous, just like playing with fire. Whoever plays with fire will get burned,’ he said. 

“The discussion on Taiwan – perhaps the most fraught issue between the two countries – was ‘extended,’ and Biden ‘clearly reaffirmed’ the one-China policy acknowledging Beijing’s position that it is the sole legal government of China and related policy precepts, said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the private summit.”  

In response to all this, according to international news channel broadcast reports, the Taiwanese foreign affairs department issued a strong rejoinder to these comments by Xi, highlighting the US’s ongoing adherence to the Taiwan Relations Act that governs US positions, and expressing annoyance the Chinese government was essentially ignoring those legal requirements bearing on the US government’s continuing support for Taiwan. No surprises there either. 

In sum, this was obviously not a summit that tied up all the loose threads, settled outstanding disagreements, and set out a beautiful, Technicolor vision for the future of bilateral relations. But nobody pulled the plug on the connection or stomped away in a huff, and the discussions ran well beyond the intended length, something that could be read as a good sign for future discussions. And just maybe, sometimes holding such summits using virtual, long-distance technology, like a growing number of businesses do, may help make conversations get right down to business and thus make the meetings more quotidian, constructive events. 

These meetings would be able to take place without all the distractions of the massive security, the complex logistics, the overwhelming media crush, along with all the other preparations that inevitably accompany leaders’ summits and sometimes make the actual conversations almost an afterthought. DM

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