After the domestic positions of US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping were strengthened, the former by the results of the midterm elections in the US on 8 November for the Democrats, and the unprecedented third term in office for the latter as secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the two men met in Bali, Indonesia, on 14 November for their first face-to-face meeting since Biden became US president in January 2021.
On the day he entered the White House, relations between the US and China were already strained. Former Republican president Donald Trump, Biden’s predecessor, had already slapped enormous tariffs on Chinese exports to the US market, in addition to shutting out some Western countries from leading Chinese technological companies like Huawei that wanted to supply equipment to their G5 networks. From the US point of view, such Chinese companies could represent a threat to the national security of the US as well as to major allies like the UK.
With the new Biden administration, some China-watchers expected something of a thaw in US-Chinese relations. However, their expectations were short-lived. After almost a month-and-a-half in power, Biden held a 2+2 meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, with Chinese counterparts in March 2021 to test the waters. The US delegation included Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. China was represented by Wang Yi, the foreign minister, and the senior official in the CCP in charge of foreign relations.
However, the meeting did not prepare the ground for mutual understanding between the two great powers as later developments have proven.
From March 2021 until the fateful visit of Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the US House of Representatives, to Taiwan in August this year, US-Chinese relations saw a downward spiral. Her visit was the first by a senior US official to Taiwan since the early 1990s, and it was nothing short of a direct challenge to the Chinese president, who was in the midst of preparing the 20th National Congress of the CCP that convened two months later last October.
Historians will probably look back on 2021 as the year of the US containment of China as a newcomer to the club of the superpowers. From promoting the so-called Quad group of the US, Japan, India, and Australia, to the establishment of the Anglo-Saxon alliance known as Aukus of Australia, and the UK, and the strengthening of the trilateral alliance comprising the US, Japan, and South Korea, no one can escape the conclusion that the main objective, at least in the context of the global strategy of the US, is to curtail and contain China’s power and role in the Indo-Pacific region.
This has become the epicentre of what some would call a new Cold War in the growing and unmistakable conflict between Washington and Beijing and a conflict that is destined to shape a new world order in the making.
A few days before the US-Chinese summit in Bali, a senior White House official said on 10 November that Biden wanted to use his upcoming talks with Xi “to build a floor,” or, in other words, to reach an agreement or mutual understanding with his Chinese counterpart to prevent their bilateral relations from “free falling” into open conflict. In the meantime, and in order to avoid too great expectations, the official stressed that the summit between the two most powerful and influential leaders in the world today was not about reaching agreements or “deliverables” but about gaining a better understanding of each other’s priorities as well as reducing misconceptions.
In the same vein, Sullivan told reporters aboard US Air Force One on its way to begin the second Asian trip of the US president, his first since last May when he visited South Korea and Japan and convened another summit of the Quad leaders in Tokyo, that the meeting in Bali was unlikely to result in any major breakthroughs or dramatic shifts in the US-Chinese relationship.
Biden himself said in a news conference on 9 November that his aim in meeting Xi was to lay out what he termed “red lines” for each of the competing superpowers.
From the Chinese standpoint, the purpose of the Bali meeting was to bring relations with the US “back on track.” On 14 November, Mao Ning, the spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said that Beijing was looking forward “to mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation” with the US.
In the three-and-a-half meeting, the two leaders reviewed their respective positions vis-a-vis a host of questions that included Taiwan, North Korea, peace and security in the Taiwan Strait, and what US officials have called the “coercive” policies of China in the Indo-Pacific region, as well as their bilateral relations in technology, commerce, and cooperation on climate change, the two countries being the main emitters of greenhouse-gas emissions in the world today. They discussed the war in Ukraine in the light of US efforts, unsuccessful so far, to wean China away from President Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Both sides agreed to resume bilateral discussions on climate change, health questions, and food security. Moreover, according to the US readout of the summit, the two presidents “underscored their opposition to the use or threat of the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine”.
It is telling that the Chinese readout did not mention this, however. Wang Yi , the Chinese foreign minister, called on the US to “stop trying to contain and beat down China, stop meddling in China’s domestic affairs, and stop hurting China’s sovereignty, security, and development interests.”
As for Biden, he did not mince his words in describing US strategy in dealing with China. “We are going to compete vigorously, but I am not looking for conflict,” he said, adding that he wanted “to manage this competition responsibly.”
Needless to say, such aspirations remain to be seen, especially if Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy, who could become the next speaker of the House of Representatives in January, goes through with his promise to visit Taiwan. That would be, if it takes place, the undoing of any positive results of the US-Chinese summit in Bali.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.