U.S. and China agree to keep talking as Biden and Xi do subtle diplomatic dance

By Mayank Chhaya-

In the end it seemed that the two leaders of the world’s two superpowers, the U.S. and China, Joe Biden and Xi Jinping respectively, ended up humble boasting about their official vehicles.

After their much-anticipated nearly four-hour summit meeting on the sidelines of Asia-Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) in San Francisco on October 16, as Biden escorted Xi to see him off, the latter said, “I believe our bilateral relations will continue to grow.”

To which Biden said, “I agree.”

Then in a charming non-sequitur, Biden pointed at Xi’s presidential vehicle and said, “It is a beautiful vehicle.”

Xi responded saying it was “Red Flag (Hongqi). Chinese brand. Feel free to check it out.”

Biden took a peek and said, looking at his own vehicle, “It is like that Cadillac we have over there.”

Shaking Xi’s hand, the U.S president added for good measure, “(For) international meetings they fly those with me. You know what they call that car? They call them the Beast.”

Clearly unintended, the Beast reference may have become the metaphor for the U.S. asserting its continuing primacy as a global superpower. However, in a more substantive setting of their formal talks earlier, right at the outset Xi was equally clear about how he viewed the world from Beijing.

Xi told Biden, “Planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed, and one country’s success is an opportunity for the other.”

In case there was any doubt about his and China’s ambitions as the rival global superpower, he called the US-China relationship “the most important bilateral relationship in the world”, adding that he and Biden “shoulder heavy responsibilities for the two peoples, for the world, and for history”.

He also said this: “For two large countries like China and the United States, turning their back on each other is not an option. It is unrealistic for one side to remodel the other, and conflict and confrontation has unbearable consequences for both sides.”

The observation that it is “unrealistic for one side to remodel the other” was a deftly constructed but unambiguously conveyed message that China was not about to recast itself into the image of Washington.

The overarching tone of Xi and Biden’s summit was mildly conciliatory in the midst of the two countries experiencing what has been described as the lowest point in bilateral relations in decades. There are multiple problems between the two but broadly they range from military tensions to the flow from China of precursors for Fentanyl and from America’s severe technology export controls against China to geostrategic flashpoints such the Russia-Ukraine war, Israel-Hamas war, and muscle-flexing over Taiwan.

Notwithstanding those, it was remarkable that the two leaders were able to agree on the resumption of military-to-military communications as well as the export of precursors for Fentanyl which has created a deadly opioid crisis across America. There were no dramatic breakthroughs, of course, but the fact that Biden and Xi decided to talk again even about talking is seen as progress in the current climate.

“Restoring these military to military-to-military contacts, and not just at the secretary of defense level, but also at the regional command level and the operational level, is really critical to helping to avoid miscalculations and mistakes,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken was quoted as saying in an interview.

The reason behind Xi’s seeming softening is a slew of serious domestic challenges he is facing. A significantly weakening Chinese economy, rising unemployment, a rash of bankruptcies and widespread housing crisis couple with crashing property values have all made him rather vulnerable. Perhaps he has made the calculation that he is better off reinvigorating American investment to counter some of those challenges. To that end, he opened his charm full throttle during a high-priced dinner, reportedly $40,000 a plate, with some 300 top executives, including Apple CEO Tim Cook and Tesla chief Elon Musk. Xi injected some levity talking about panda and Ping-Pong. Incidentally, China has decided to gift a set of new pandas.

During his dinner with business executives, he called pandas “envoys of friendship between the Chinese and American peoples.”

“We are ready to continue our cooperation with the United States on panda conservation and do our best to meet the wishes of the Californians so as to deepen the friendly ties between our two peoples,” he said.

Reports suggest that despite the generally friendly tone of Xi’s engagements Washington under Biden will continue to view Beijing with skeptical circumspection. “Trust but verify,” is how Biden put it echoing President Ronald Reagan’s famous phrase about dealings with the erstwhile Soviet Union. The phrase itself was said to have been derived from a Russian saying.

There are expectations that Beijing’s plans to invade China anytime soon may have been shelved in the aftermath of the summit. Xi reportedly told Biden that he had no plans to invade Taiwan.

On balance, at the very least, the Biden-Xi summit managed to pull the two countries from the precipice for now. Whether they will stay there is anybody’s guess.

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