On The Margin: What Xi-Biden summit tells the world

Written By: Shastri Ramachandaran WION
New Delhi Published: Nov 18, 2021, 10:03 PM(IST)

Screen shows Xi Jinping attending a virtual meeting with Joe Biden via video link, at a restaurant in Beijing Photograph:( Reuters )

Story highlights

There was no substantive outcome nor was any expected from the Xi-Biden meeting. Its purpose was to ensure that the fierce competition between the two superpowers in every sphere from the military and political to the economic and climate change does not create a situation where the confrontationist posturing results in a conflict

The text as well as the subtext of the three-hour-long virtual meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden held on Nov 15-16 is certain to be debated and dissected long after the event fades from the headlines before there is any conclusive view on whether Biden had got the better of Xi or was it vice-versa. 

What is clear in the immediate aftermath of the summit between the Big Two is that the US has one narrative for driving the rest of the world to adopt a confrontational and combative approach towards China and quite another when it comes to its own dealings with China. Washington’s approach to Beijing, as evidenced in all bilateral engagements, begins with a few predictable hard words (which break no bones) before the two settle down in a business-like way to conduct business, which is the business of both America and China.

There was no substantive outcome nor was any expected from the Xi-Biden meeting. Its purpose was to ensure that the fierce competition between the two superpowers in every sphere from the military and political to the economic and climate change does not create a situation where the confrontationist posturing results in a conflict. In contrast, the US administration and institutions that serve as props to further its foreign policy objectives have been pushing overtly and covertly to ensure that China-India relations do not move too far away from the brink of conflict.

The US has been exploiting the China-India military stand-off in eastern Ladakh and China’s pronouncements on Taiwan to make the case that the war-like noises and acts of the Chinese pose the danger of conflict in the region. This narrative of China being on a confrontationist course against the world’s democracies, particularly in Asia, is to thwart  China’s acceptability as a rising power that could challenge the prevalent US hegemony. It is also intended to counter the argument that China as the biggest beneficiary of globalisation, especially in the matter of trade, has little to gain from a conflict when a peaceful rise would be to its advantage.

When it came to bilateral business, the US and China decided to: eschew the path of conflict while keeping up their competition; increase “mutually beneficial” trade, with China importing more goods from the US; and, remain united in their commitment to climate change policy.

Purely as a matter of form, the US raised “concerns” regarding human rights in China, and in like form, China said it would discuss human rights but not be lectured to by outsiders.

That done, Biden reiterated the US commitment to its long-standing one-China policy without so much as a change in nuance and Xi made it plain that should ‘Taiwan independence’ separatists cross the red line with any provocative action, China would be compelled to consider a break with its pursuit of peaceful reunification of Taiwan with the People’s Republic. At the end of it, both sides described the exchanges as a “healthy debate” that was frank and direct. 

Clearly, the US was unwilling to walk the talk when it came to making China yield ground on any issue. Despite saying at the Alaska meeting of US and Chinese officials in April that they would talk from a position of strength, Biden seemed to be playing with a weak hand. This may be attributed to US loss of prestige, credibility and power in the aftermath of fleeing Afghanistan in August which has increased distrust between the US and its allies including in Europe. Europe is no longer on the same page as the US in the matter of dealing with China.

Besides, New Delhi, which is being goaded to lead the US strategy for containment of China including as a Quad member, has realised that, for all its military might and rhetoric, when push comes to shove, the US would step back and leave India on the brink to confront China on its own. That may be the reason why the Indian establishment refuses to be taken in by the Pentagon report of China’s “illegal occupation” of Indian territory; and, the military view of the situation is at variance with that of the Ministry of External Affairs. 

India has stood its ground that normalisation depends on Chinese disengagement and de-escalation and matched China’s military action and infrastructure build-up on the border. At the same time, the political leadership has desisted from provocative language or hawkish baiting, much to the disappointment of Washington.

Even as the US does business with China, it wants India and Taiwan to remain confrontationist as that would suit its primary objective of military equipment sales to countries facing Chinese hostility. India is clearly resisting this US push as underscored by New Delhi taking delivery of the S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missile defence systems from Russia ignoring US murmurs of sanctions.

(Disclaimer: The views of the writer do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. Nor does WION or ZMCL endorse the views of the writer.)

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