Commentary: China and the US are becoming firm frenemies
The call between Biden and Xi reinforced the new reality for Sino-US relations, with selective collaboration and broad competition, says Christian Le Miere.
HONG KONG: One thing the COVID pandemic has brought us all are lengthy online meetings that seem to go on forever.
On Tuesday (Nov 16) Beijing time (Monday evening in Washington DC), the two most powerful men in the world experienced exactly what the rest of us have soldiered through for nearly two years.
President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping engaged in a 3.5-hour long, virtual direct conversation, their first (albeit digital) face-to-face discussion since Biden became president in January.
The meeting was the most definitive moment for framing the Sino-US relationship over the course of the coming administration.
With Xi having been all but confirmed as serving a third term at the sixth plenum last week, this means Biden and Xi will likely be dealing with each other for at least three more years.
But the main outcome of the meeting was a definition of how fraught the relationship is likely to be. There were a few signs of progress on collaboration. The primary aim on both sides appears to have not to lower current levels of competition, but simply prevent them from becoming overtly confrontational.
RED LINES AND GUARDRAILS
Substantial deliverables were almost entirely lacking from the meeting, despite its length and the build-up beforehand with lower-level officials meeting, namely US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Politburo member Yang Jiechi.
An agreement on the lifting of visa restrictions for some journalists was reached, which should allow those previously denied access to or ejected from either country to return.
Beyond this, there were no significant agreements reached. The two sides agreed to consider negotiations in a more structured format over the issue of nuclear weapons limitations.
What emerged instead was a better understanding of how the relationship will look for the foreseeable future, defined by a managed strategic competition. The meeting did not dial this down, but created a more stable platform on which it will play out.
It may not have delivered any solid “guardrails” that the US spoke about extensively in the lead-up and seemed so keen on developing, to prevent competition from spiralling into conflict on the most contentious issues, but it did create a more mutual understanding on these issues.
A key example was the topic of Taiwan, which has been at the centre of Sino-US tension in recent months.
Both sides laid out their red lines on Taiwan, with Biden underlining that the US does not wish to see the status quo changed by unilateral action, while Xi noted that advocates of Taiwanese independence were “playing with fire”.
This understanding should, in theory, help ensure, as Biden noted, that the “competition between [these two[ countries does not veer into conflict, whether intended or unintended.”
Yet the conversation between these two veteran leaders also dived into areas of potential cooperation between the two countries. Topics such as the international drug trade, Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, energy markets, the pandemic and climate change were all discussed.
Each requires cross-border cooperation, and thus have been identified previously in Washington as potential areas for collaboration between China and the US, despite current levels of tension.
Sullivan even hinted in a readout at think tank Brookings Institution after the call that China might ban the export of fentanyl, long a domestic political lightning rod in the US, where tens of thousands of fentanyl opioid deaths are recorded every year.
This was further demonstrated just a week before the Biden-Xi meeting with a high-profile bilateral agreement between the two superpowers at COP26.
There, China and the US, the world’s two largest emitters of carbon dioxide, issued a joint declaration stating their “firm commitment to work together” on climate issues. From regulations to standards, clean energy to the circular economy, the agreement outlined a series of potential areas for collaboration over the “critical decade of the 2020s”.
Whether concrete actions to collaborate will be reached is still uncertain, but both sides were keen to emphasise the greater momentum behind such a scenario in the wake of the talks.
The Biden administration will be wary of previous backsliding by Beijing on promises made, but sees little option other than to seek to engage on those issues where China’s involvement is paramount to policy success.
Perhaps just as important as the substance of the meeting – collaboration around certain cross-border issues and red lines around others – was what failed to make it on to the agenda in a meaningful way.
Neither side in their respective readouts and briefings after the call mentioned current US sanctions and tariffs on China.
This is perhaps the best indicator of where Sino-US relations lie. Those tariffs when first implemented by the Trump administration were surprising, even shocking to observers.
But now they have been accepted as standard US policy towards China, with little indication they are likely to be removed, or even be used as bargaining chips.
This reflects the Biden administration’s strategy towards China: A baseline of managed competition - prevented from escalating into conflict but presented with enough muscularity to ensure US interests are taken seriously – is mitigated by ad hoc collaboration on key issues.
Underlining the fact that the US will no longer shy away from confronting China on issues such as human rights, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan, the Washington Post ran a story on Wednesday suggesting the Biden administration was about to announce a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics to be held in Beijing in just three months.
Leaking such a story immediately after the Biden-Xi call is a clear signal from the administration that it will continue to push back on what it sees as Chinese transgressions of US interests no matter the more positive messages emanating from the leadership conference.
What this means for the Sino-US relationship is that the era of strategic competition will continue. It may lack the bluster and unpredictability of the Trump administration, but it will maintain most of the policies and more forceful representation of US interests.
There may not yet be any guardrails on this competition, but this clearer path to greater dialogue and selective cooperation should lower the temperature and curtail any slide towards conflict.
Christian Le Miere is a foreign policy adviser and the founder and managing director of Arcipel, a strategic advisory firm based in London.