After eleven months in office, US Democratic Party President Joe Biden held his first summit meeting in virtual mode with his Chinese counterpart President Xi Jinping on 15 November.
A senior US official quoted in the UK Financial Times newspaper on 16 November saying that the US administration was not “expecting a breakthrough; there was none to report... The [summit] was about ensuring that the [US] and China have sort of a steady state of affairs.”
However, a “steady state of affairs” will not in itself ensure that the competition between the US and China becomes less confrontational. A close observer of the ups and downs of relations between Washington and Beijing writing on how to manage US-Chinese relations in the 21st century has written that we “inhabit a Thucydidean world in which today’s hegemon, the United States, which has dominated the Bretton Woods system since it began in 1944, faces a challenger, China, that is knocking with growing conviction at the door.”
“I believe that the course of the twenty-first century will be the story of how successive American administrations, be they Democrat or Republican, manage and respond strategically to China becoming a great power.”
This situation naturally evokes the Cold War years from the Missouri speech of former UK prime minister Winston Churchill about the “Iron Curtain” in 1946 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
The Cold War pitted the US against the former Soviet Union, and the two great powers of the day were locked into an escalating nuclear arms race in the pre-detente era that spanned five US administrations and three general secretaries of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. By 1972, a new chapter in the Cold War had opened with the start of a period of bilateral agreements between Washington and Moscow to regulate their strategic and nuclear arsenals based on the theory of “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD).
Speaking at the General Assembly of the UN last September, Biden said that the US was not seeking a repeat of the Cold War with China. And it was with this spirit and approach in mind that the first US-Chinese virtual summit of his presidency convened on 15 November.
It took place against deep and serious differences between the US and China on a host of questions, including Taiwan, Hong Kong, the South China Sea, human rights within China and trade-related issues. Most seriously of all from the standpoint of Washington is the growing and expanding military capabilities of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Prior to the summit meeting, the Pentagon released its latest report on China’s military power on 3 November, which stressed that “despite challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, Beijing continued its efforts to advance its overall development, including its economic growth, strengthening its armed forces and taking a more assertive role in global affairs.”
Afterwards, Representative Mike Rogers (R-Alabama), a ranking member of the US House Armed Services Committee, said the US needed to respond to China with what he termed an “unprecedented defence modernisation” and added that the Pentagon’s report “should crystallise for the Biden administration what has been self-evident for some time that China poses a real and imminent threat. Kicking the can down the road for our own military modernisation is no longer an option.”
The Pentagon report observed that China may have developed a “nascent” nuclear triad, or land, sea and air-launched missiles, after it deployed a nuclear-capable bomber last year. It said that China was also developing new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) that can carry multiple warheads, as well as constructing hundreds of silos for land-based missiles. It noted that the PLA tested 250 ballistic missiles in 2020, more than the rest of the world combined.
The tone of the discussions between the US and Chinese presidents at their virtual summit meeting was reassuring in the sense that the two leaders showed a marked spirit of mutual conciliation. The US president offered reassurances that the US remains committed to the “One China Policy” as far as the Taiwan question is concerned. He reiterated the US opposition to “unilateral efforts” to change the status quo. This should be taken as a coded message to the Taiwanese independence movement, as well as a warning to Beijing against the use of force to reunify Taiwan with the mainland.
The Chinese president rightly observed that “over the next 50 years, the most important thing in international relations is that China and the United States must find the right way to get along” together.
International peace and security over the next half century will depend on this. The agreement that came out of the summit meeting, the first of its kind in the context of US-Chinese relations, to start exploratory talks on “strategic stability” between the two countries is a positive step in the future management of the strategic competition between China and the United States.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.