On Monday, November 15, 2021, Xi Jinping and Joe Biden, the presidents of China and America, held a three and half-an-hour virtual meeting and discussed various issues, especially the two countries’ differences. China-US volatile relations and intensification of rivalry and tensions between them have become the focal point of the international analysts ‘attention, and therefore, this virtual meeting, was under the spotlight of the media and analysts. This virtual meeting, in terms of both content and form, had important points which cannot be fully addressed in this short paper, but we hint at the most important of them.
- Form-related Points
- The side requesting this video-talk was Joe Biden. Biden expected to visit Xi at the G-20 meeting in Rome in October, but Xi did not attend the meeting. Since the pandemic outbreak, he has not left his country. Biden’s request for holding this virtual meeting was a conciliatory gesture against China and a sign of the concerns lest thee opportunities for managing the aggravating conflict between China and the US fade away. Xi Jinping has tried, by not attending any of the summits of the heads of countries in the last two years, show that China, under his leadership, is its own boss and less dependent to the rest of the world.
- The place of the two presidents and their attendants at the meeting was symbolic and significant. Biden used the Roosevelt Room, a room that was named by Nixon in 1969 in the honor of the two former presidents of the US, Franklin Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt. Xi was seated in the East Room of the Great Hall of the People which was adorned by a landscape painting and a poem of Mao Zedong, founder of the People ’s Republic of China. It is usually in this room that the new members of the Politburo Standing Committee are introduced.
- Following the tumultuous years of Trump presidency, the Chinese expected Joe Biden to revive the US-China relations, but the expectation was not met. The Chinese leaders were shocked and enraged at the situation. Therefore, they reduced contacts to a minimum. To their opinion, Biden’s request for the virtual meeting was a real reason that China’s strategy was right to put the US on hold for months for the heads’ talks. They saw themselves the winner of this meeting which in practice had no retreat against the US.
B. Content-related Points
- The most important subjects broached at this virtual meeting were the issue of Taiwan, trade differences, human rights, and climate change. But the hottest topic discussed between the two presidents was the issue of Taiwan which was the point of contention both during and after the virtual meeting.
- At the meeting, Biden brought up and protested issues of human rights for the Xinjiang Muslims, restriction of Hong Kong autonomy and the Tibetan issue. Also, he stressed the US policy of continuation of the Taiwan Relations Act.
- Xi adopted a very decisive position on the Taiwan issue and stated that the US should not test China’s resolve about the Taiwan issue. He described the US support for Taiwan as playing with fire and warned the US that its policy of forming coalitions with China’s neighbors would lead the world towards a catastrophe. He stressed that China would not accept interference in its domestic affairs under the pretext of human rights.
- There was no tangible progress about trade differences at the meeting. China supported a de-politicization of trade issues. Also the difference about how to enforce the 2020 trade agreement about trade issues still consisted and the Americans believed China had not met its commitment to buy $380 billion worth of US goods until the end of 2021.
- Xi referred to Biden as “old friend” at the meeting, bringing various speculations. To some analysts, employing this expression was a tactic to control the meeting’s atmosphere. Following the meeting the White House’s Assistant Speaker stated that Biden Had had working meetings with Xi during his vice presidency, but does not see him as his old friend.
At this meeting which was aimed at managing the increasing US-China tensions, the differences between the views appeared which showed themselves in the statements and remarks of the two sides following the meeting. As expected, there was no joint statement. In this situation, the question is whether the US-China ties are rolling down the cliff of a Cold War? Biden has expressed that he does not want a cold war. Some variables, like the gigantic amount of the trade exchanges, US-China’s economic interdependence and the belief of the leaders of the two countries that a cold war would bring heavy losses on both sides will prevent a cold war of the US-Soviet style. However, the signs for a cold war between the US and China are not rare and far between. Almost routine flights of the Chinese aircraft over Taiwan, China’s development of its space program and testing of hypersonic missiles and swap of Ms. Meng Wanzhou, daughter of Huawei’s founder, with two Canadian and two American citizens, which is reminiscent of the swap of spies during the cold war, are among these indications. On the other side, the White House has declared that following the meeting will be hosting a high ranking delegation from Taiwan.
It is clear the US and China still have serious rifts. The two countries’ leaders tried to adopt a positive and conciliatory tone at the meeting, but the main issue still persists, whether they can prevent the aggravating tensions from snowballing towards a final conflict. The signs tell us that America and China have a tough way to prevent that final situation.
Khalil Shirgholami, Senior Expert of IPIS
(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)