In our article posted yesterday, we suggested that Beijing’s apparent interest might be in a détente to pump the brakes on the relationship’s downward spiral. Joe Biden said he was not looking for “conflict” between the US and China, and there will not be a new Cold War.
The meeting took place in Bali, a day before the G-20 summit was due to kick off, and was the first time the two superpower leaders had met in person since Biden took office.
“We need to chart the right course for the China-U.S. relationship,” Xi said at the opening of the meeting in Mandarin, according to an official English translation broadcast.
“We must find the right direction for the bilateral relationship going forward and elevate the relationship.”
China’s infamous zero-COVID controls and restrictions on international travel have left the country more isolated than ever since the mid-1970s. Many Chinese urbanites see their country shifting toward North Korean isolation and increasingly use a term coined several years ago, “West Korea,” to describe their nation. China is not yet a Hermit Kingdom, but my recent trip their post-outbreak of the pandemic, the first by a Washington think tank expert, convinced me that China’s growing isolation is as dangerous for the world as Pyongyang’s is.
When U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Bali, Indonesia, on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, they both seemed to have understood that reducing their countries’ mutual isolation should be a top priority and that doing so would be the self-interest of both countries as well as benefit the rest of the world. This is urgently needed because the situation has become dire.
U.S. President Joe Biden (right) and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands as they meet on the sidelines of the G-20 summit on 14 Nov.
The Beijing Capital International Airport provided the initial clue that China had turned inward. Flights into Beijing are down by over two-thirds from their 2019 levels, and I saw no foreign airlines coming in for a landing during my ten days there. In the city, the absence of international visitors was even clearer. And even hotels of major American chains, have so few guests that the restaurant is only open during the week.
China closed its doors to international tourists in early 2020. Since then, many multinational expatriates and their families have left, as have the Western teachers who taught their children. Global CEOs used to flock to China; now, they stay away. Embassies are short-staffed, as Beijing is no longer a sought-after destination for enterprising diplomats and is now more of a hardship post than it used to be—thanks chiefly to zero-COVID policies. Only a handful of American journalists are left following multiple rounds of expulsions and a visa process that can take years.
Some experts also fear they might be treated like Canadian Michael Kovrig. A former diplomat turned scholar who was unjustly imprisoned for nearly three years along with fellow Canadian Michael Spavor in retaliation for Canada detaining Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou as part of an extradition request by the United States.
There is a dearth of young Americans who might once have been the next generation of China experts. According to a U.S. official, fewer than 300 American students are in the entire country, down from over 11,000 students at the peak in 2018.
Foreigners that stay constantly ask themselves why. The answers vary from their spouses being Chinese to not wanting to disrupt their children’s schooling to have a lucrative job. One friend confessed that he had not moved away out of a sense of duty. “If I left,” he asked, “who would be here to witness this?”
The number of Chinese traveling abroad has likewise dwindled. Chinese business executives, tourists, and scholars have primarily stayed home—in some cases due to their anxieties about traveling or wanting to avoid the extended quarantine when returning. The political risk of extensive interactions with foreigners appeared to rise before the pandemic. In the case of many scholars, their university will not approve their overseas travel, fearing they will bring COVID-19 back to the country. There are still large numbers of Chinese exchange students abroad—including more than 300,000 students in the United States as of 2021, the most recent year for which there is data—but most have been cut off from home because of quarantine demands.
The consequences of physical isolation and limited direct contact are profound. Mutual understanding is the first casualty. Reading documents and holding online meetings are no substitutes for extended face-to-face interactions. My conversations in Beijing and Shanghai gave me far greater insight into the range of official and personal opinions on the United States, Ukraine, Taiwan, technology competition, COVID-19, and other issues than I could obtain online. And one can see how China’s domestic social dynamics shape those views and debates.
Moreover, the dearth of extended in-person exchanges strengthens the formation of an echo chamber in China’s policy community, characterized by an unchallenged consensus that demonizes the United States, defends every Chinese action as justified, and concludes that Beijing is winning in its struggle against Washington. Extensive and repeated face-to-face engagement and diplomacy are the only effective way to penetrate this distorted view. Effective communication—both listening and speaking—is critical whether the goal is greater cooperation or effective deterrence.
Both Biden And Xi Came Into The Meeting With Domestic Political Winds At Their Backs
Biden said that the midterm elections had sent a message worldwide that the U.S. would remain fully engaged in global affairs. Xi, for his part, cemented his power last month when he got a third term as head of the ruling Communist Party and could stack the leadership with allies and loyalists.
Biden said he found Xi neither more confrontational nor conciliatory than in the past. And he added: “Do I think he’s willing to compromise on various issues? Yes.”
But he struck a cautious tone about the road ahead.
“We’re not going to be able to work everything out. I’m not suggesting this is kumbaya,” Biden said.
The White House listed global issues like climate, debt relief, health security, and food security as areas in which the two leaders “agreed to empower key senior officials to maintain communication and deepen constructive efforts.”
The White House said Biden and Xi both “reiterated their agreement that a nuclear war should never be fought and can never be won and underscored their opposition to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.”
Heading into the meeting, Biden reiterated his call to manage the emerging competition between the two sides responsibly.
“As the leaders of our two nations, we share responsibility, in my view, to show that China and the U.S. can manage our differences, prevent competition from becoming anything nearing conflict, and find ways to work together on urgent, global issues that require our cooperation,” Biden said to Xi at the start of the meeting.
Xi told Biden that the bilateral relationship currently “is not what the international community expects” and said the leaders need to “elevate the relationship.”
China The Global Power And Russia The Junior Partner
Biden publicly told Xi that the US was ready to reengage in climate talks – at an opportune moment for the Egypt climate summit. After the talks, a White House readout said that the two leaders “agreed to empower key senior officials to maintain communication and deepen constructive efforts” on climate change, global macroeconomic stability, including debt relief, health security, and global food security.”
The US statement that Xi and Biden “reiterated their agreement that a nuclear war should never be fought and can never be won and underscored their opposition to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine” was also important.
While Beijing has yet to confirm Xi’s side of the conversation, China’s consummation of a new friendship with Moscow just before the invasion of Ukraine caused alarm in the West. And as top US and Russian officials met in Turkey on Monday, partly about the nuclear issue, the signals coming out of the Xi-Biden talks could be an essential indication of restraint from Beijing to Moscow and a diplomatic win for Washington.
Biden’s maneuvering is also the latest sign that an emerging goal of his foreign policy is to stress the differences between Moscow and Beijing. Before he went to Asia, Biden suggested that China didn’t have that much respect for either Russian President Vladimir Putin or Russia itself.
So, Washington’s foreign policy has come full circle since part of Richard Nixon’s motivation in engaging China during the 1970s Cold War deep freeze was to open strategic gaps between Beijing and Moscow.
Things aren’t so different now, though the dynamic between the Kremlin and Beijing has reversed, with China the global power and Russia the junior partner.