Cosmetic Diplomacy: What To Make Of The Jinping-Biden Summit
For Biden, the virtual conference was a tool to send out a strong message to his counterparts in America that the White House could act tough or bare minimum, constrain and control the rise of Beijing if warranted.
For Xi, it was about sending out a message, as the most powerful leader on the world stage, that China was not willing to be constrained.
On Tuesday (16 November), President of the United States of America, Joe Biden, and China’s President, Xi Jinping, concluded a virtual conference that extended for over three-hours. Xi, who has not travelled outside China since the beginning of the pandemic, even at the cost of inviting criticism for his absence in the recent COP26 summit, met his counterpart from the US seeking cooperation in several areas while acknowledging the need to manage competition.
On paper, the virtual diplomatic event may appear as a contest of the equals. However, Xi and Biden are poles apart when it comes to the political realities in their respective countries. The former has recently passed a 36,000 word resolution, becoming only the third president in the history of People's Republic of China, in more than seven decades, thus not only winning a third-term but the license to rule for a lifetime.
Biden, fresh from his success of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan, the biggest such plan since the 1930s under the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, continues to struggle on domestic issues of illegal immigration, vaccine mandates, and taxation. However, on the issue of China, he enjoys bipartisan support, given both Democrats and Republicans are equally frustrated with the Chinese advances in the realm of trade, free markets, intellectual property theft, and the growing nuclear arsenal.
The inequality in political stature was not missed in the Chinese media which attributed the request for the conference to the White House, and also stressed on how the hours of the conference coincide with the working hours in Beijing and the odd-hours in America, thus giving the Chinese an upper hand in the diplomatic shenanigans. Further, the objective of the conference was restricted to ushering some urgent cosmetic touches to an otherwise strained diplomatic relationship in the wake of pandemic.
Thus, for Biden, the conference was a tool to send out a strong message to his counterparts in America that the White House could act tough or bare minimum, constrain and control the rise of Beijing if warranted. For Xi, it was about sending out a message, as the most powerful leader on the world stage, that China was not willing to be constrained.
For Biden, a one-time president in all probability, it was proving that Chinese could be controlled, and for Xi, the Chinese President across the 2020s, it was about keeping the threat of another Cold War at bay while Beijing worked overtime to gain self-reliance in key areas.
While both parties sought peaceful co-existence, cooperation in key areas, and management of the prevailing competition, Xi laid out the groundwork for the diplomatic relationship under Biden’s regime, stressing on three principles and four priority areas.
On the question of principles, Beijing stressed that the two superpowers must respect each other’s social systems and development paths, respect each other’s core interests and major concerns, and respect each others’ right to development. Thus, in very clear words, Xi stated how the White House, also under former President Donald Trump, had been active on the issues of Xinjiang, Hong Kong, surveillance state, carbon emissions, South China Sea, and Taiwan, and how it was stressing the relationship between the two countries.
The other two principles focused on peaceful coexistence and cooperation, and for the two nations to avoid conflict, clearly indicating the tensions and military activity in South China Sea and with respect to Taiwan.
The four priority areas defined the need for the superpowers to shoulder responsibilities of major countries and lead global response to outstanding challenges, and to act in the spirit of equality and mutual benefit to move forward exchanges at all levels and in areas that can generate more positive thrust for US-China relations. Clearly, the whole idea of holding China accountable for the biggest pandemic of the last hundred-years is one lost to history.
The priority areas also stressed on the need for the superpowers to ensure that the diplomatic relationship is not derailed and for cooperation on major international and regional hotspot issues to provide more public goods to the world, thus indicating Beijing’s demand for the White House to go back on their stance of trade war and import goals.
For the global observers, stakeholders, and investors, the conference was important for the one important issue of Taiwan.
Some local media in China quoted officials in the conference, stating that the United States would be playing with fire if they interfered with the unification of the Chinese mainland and Taiwan. Xi stated that while they had the patience and were striving for the prospect of a peaceful reunification, they would not fall short of taking resolute measures if any western forces created trouble in the strait.
Biden, in response, only expressed his concern against the reunification and hoped for peace and stability to prevail in the region. While Biden’s formal counterpart was more vocal on the issue of Hong Kong, Trump could not do much beyond economic sanctions. On Taiwan, Biden may make tall promises but with the history of the Korean War and the infamous exit from Afghanistan, Biden would not be keen on another war without an exit strategy. Put simply, Taiwan’s future does look bleak.
While the two countries will continue to cooperate on the issue of free markets, trade, and even the upcoming Winter Olympics in 2022, the virtual conference, in the pages of history, will serve as a testament to the beginning of the end of Taiwan. Xi cemented his position as the lifetime ruler of China last week, and this week, he is assured of a weak diplomatic and military response in the Pacific even if he endangers the global supply chains depending on semiconductors with potential losses in excess of $500 billion.
What to indeed make of the Jinping-Biden summit?
Just some cosmetic touches to an otherwise dormant diplomatic volcano waiting to blow up, starting with Taiwan.
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