The over-hyped Xi-Biden summit held last week ended up as ‘much ado about nothing.’ The nearly three-and-a-half-hours summit was mainly both sides projecting their views with no joint statement being released, though this had already been hinted by the White House, prior to the meeting. However, the fact that the two most powerful global leaders and current adversaries spoke, implied that communication channels are open. While Biden has made multiple international visits in recent times, Xi has not left China for over 700 days. Many claim Xi’s hibernation is on account of COVID, while China analysts state there are internal tensions and insecurity, which compelled Xi to remain within.
Both leaders had assumed that they were walking into the summit from a position of strength. Biden believed his successful visits to the G20 and COP26 Glasgow summit, for both Xi was missing, gave him an advantage. Further, just prior to the summit he had signed the infrastructure bill which would result in the US investing more in global infrastructure development than China. This would make the US led, Build Back Better World (B3W), a challenge to the Chinese Belt Road Initiative (BRI). However, Biden’s internal approval ratings are currently the lowest since he occupied the Oval Office. Xi, as a dictator, has no such concern.
Xi was entering the summit post the recently concluded CPC Plenum, which reinforced him as a helmsmen and assured him of a third term and possibly even beyond. Xi even referred to it when he mentioned in reference to US attempts to contain China, ‘over the past century, the CPC has kept to its founding aspiration and mission of striving for the happiness of the Chinese people and rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,’ adding, ‘any attempt to stop this historical trend will be rejected by the Chinese people and will by no means succeed.’ However, internally the collapse of construction giants, power and food shortages are signs that all is not well.
The summit was held during working hours in China and late night in the US. The Global Times was quick to exploit this and stated in an editorial that this, ‘clearly shows which side is more eager.’ It added, ‘China gradually has the initiative of bilateral relations. The era for the US to unilaterally define bilateral ties has ended and the two countries have entered into a period of equal and fair dialogue.’ China has been conveying the message that it is more than equal to the US and could counter it in every sphere. In every bilateral meeting, China has demanded that the US consider it as an equal.
In the summit, subjects raised by both sides were largely expected. Biden concentrated on human rights violations in China with special reference to Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, Beijing’s trade policies and a free and open Indo-Pacific. On Taiwan, Biden stated, ‘United States remains committed to the ‘one China’ policy, guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the three Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurances,’ adding, ‘strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.’China has repeatedly rejected these references.
Xi, on his part, raised the creation of groupings against China. He was referring to the QUAD and AUKUS (Australia, UK and US). He also criticized what he termed as the US, ‘abusing the concept of national security to oppress Chinese companies.’ On Taiwan, Xi warned the US that it was, ‘playing with fire,’ adding, ‘whoever plays with fire will get burnt.’Xi mentioned that if Taiwan crosses Red Lines, China will have no choice. On accusations of Human Rights, Xi stated China is ready to have dialogues on human rights on the basis of mutual respect, ‘but we oppose using human rights to meddle in other countries’ internal affairs.’Xi also objected to Biden’s plans to hold a summit of democracies in Dec, claiming that it was aimed at uniting nations against China.
In summary, the summit was both leaders projecting their views, seeking to manage differences, however not reaching a consensus. The only advantage was that the leaders spoke and sought to send the message that channels can be kept open and possibly conflicts managed. As Biden stated, ‘our responsibility as leaders of China and the United States is to ensure that the competition between our countries does not veer into conflict, whether intended or unintended. Just simple, straightforward competition.’ The official releasesfrom both sides conveyed nothing more than affirmation of their current stand and suspicions.
Where does this summit leave India, whose relations with China appear to be sliding downhill. Simultaneously, the Chinese seem to be conveying a message that they are in no rush to normalize ties. India has displayed its intention of standing upto China and refusing to back down. China has been irked by the Indian participation in the QUAD and its growing proximity to the US. With the summit ending in a stalemate there would be no pullback on either side. The US would continue to seek to contain China and support Taiwan while China would hit back. The launch of B3W would challenge Chinese investments in the Indo-Pacific, adding to growing tensions.
Currently, China has two main concerns, Taiwan and Ladakh, apart from fighting global criticism on its handling of Uighurs in Xinjiang. With a stalemate on Taiwan, Chinese concentration would remain there. Further, with the Beijing Winter Olympics now closing in, China would do nothing which could result in a global ban, which could be exploited by Xi’s opponents. Ladakh would remain in its current state for the moment as would Indo-China relations. There is unlikely to be any discussion to resolve the LAC. The fact that India remains in the US camp will ensure that there is no thaw on the LAC.
The much-hyped summit ended without fanfare. It will now be business as usual from both sides. For India, it would mean closer proximity to the US and increased distancing with China.
The author is Major General of India (Retd)