Biden, Xi video summit likely to seek 'guardrails,' damage control

Current tensions in the bilateral relationship are unlikely to be resolved when the two leaders hold remote talks.
By Chen Meihua, Gao Feng and Shum Yin Hang
2021.11.15
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Biden, Xi video summit likely to seek 'guardrails,' damage control US President Joe Biden and China's President Xi Jinping are shown in a combined image taken from file photos.
AFP

Damage control, rather than resolution of key differences, is likely to be the main focus when U.S. President Joe Biden meets his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at a video summit late on Monday Washington time.

U.S. officials have indicated via media reports that the Biden administration isn't expecting any breakthroughs, but is hoping to stop bilateral tensions -- fueled by a trade war, Beijing's threat that it may invade democratic Taiwan, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)'s human rights record -- from escalating to a dangerous degree.

The talks look set to last for several hours and touch on the climate emergency, trade, and nuclear non-proliferation, as well as Taiwan, with U.S. officials briefing the media that Washington doesn't want open conflict, but rather "fierce competition."

In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the relationship with the U.S. is at a "critical crossroads," calling for dialogue and cooperation to resolve sensitive issues.

Chinese state media said Beijing's anger over the Biden administration's growing willingness to voice public support for Taiwan, which has never been ruled by the CCP, nor formed part of the People's Republic of China, will likely top Beijing's agenda at the talks.

"It is expected that the virtual meeting between the two heads of state will also give an important place to the Taiwan question which will be one of the biggest difficulties of the meeting," the CCP-backed Global Times newspaper said in an editorial dated Nov. 14.

"The most critical and urgent [issue] is to defuse the explosive question concerning Taiwan, because the Taiwan Straits is the most likely flashpoint to trigger the confrontation between China and the U.S.," the paper said, dismissing U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken's call for "meaningful dialogue" on the matter as "hypocritical cliché and nonsense."

It accused Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) under president Tsai Ing-wen as "promoting Taiwan secession," referring to Tsai's refusal to entertain Beijing's territorial claims, saying the island is already a democratic, self-governing state whose 23 million people have no wish to live under the CCP's authoritarian rule.

"Yes, the Chinese mainland has been stepping up its preparations for a military conflict across the Taiwan Straits in recent years," the Global Times said. "Apart from making the Taiwan authorities aware that the risk of war is approaching them, is there any language in the world that can help them understand what they are doing is extremely dangerous?"

"The Taiwan question is the ultimate red line of China," it added, calling on the U.S. to "take a step back," to avert a strategic collision.

"Washington must understand that it has gone too far, leaving China with no way back," it said, citing recent reports of military cooperation between the U.S. and Taiwan.

Meanwhile, Biden will tell Xi that China must "play by the rules of the road" like a responsible nation, a senior U.S. administration official told Reuters.

"This is an opportunity for President Biden to tell President Xi directly that he expects him to play by the rules of the road, which is what other responsible nations do," the official said. "This is not a meeting where we expect deliverables to be coming out," the official added.

Agence France-Presse quoted a U.S. official as saying: "The president will also make clear that we want to build common guardrails to avoid miscalculation or misunderstanding."

But officials in Washington seem unwilling to comment on whether U.S. will send officials to the Beijing Winter Olympics in February 2022, amid growing calls from activists and U.S. lawmakers for a boycott on human rights grounds.

The summit also comes soon after a report from the Pentagon, which said Beijing is significantly expanding its nuclear weapons and missile programs.

'Slim chance' of improvement

Matsuda Yasuhiro of the University of Tokyo said the chances of any improvement in the relationship were "very slim" with Xi Jinping looking likely to extend his term in office next year, after amending the constitution to abolish presidential term limits.

He cited a CCP communiqué on party history that left out any mention of "mistakes" by late supreme leader Mao Zedong, and situates Xi as the supreme heir to a long line of autocratic Chinese leaders.

"The communiqué mentions Mao Zedong seven times, Deng Xiaoping five times, Jiang Zemin once, Hu Jintao once, and Xi Jinping 16 times," Matsuda told RFA in a recent interview. "Basically, he elevated himself to the highest position."

"Xi Jinping's re-appointment in Dalian next year is basically assured," he said.

Wang Hsin-hsien, director and professor of the Institute of East Asia Studies at Taiwan's National Chengchi University, said Xi is unlikely to want any escalating foreign conflict ahead of the 20th Party Congress in 2022, however.

“The real wolf warrior diplomacy, or you could call it the nationalistic diplomatic line, probably ended in March [2021]," Wang said. "That was peak wolf warrior diplomacy, and its purpose was to test Biden's limits."

"The wolf warrior rhetoric and the nationalistic mood will diminish ahead of the 20th Party Congress," he said. "The CCP will want to create a favorable international environment."

Promoting an authoritarian model

Wang said Xi's ultimate goal, however, is to export China's authoritarian model of governance to the rest of the world.

"The main point is that he is taking a path that is totally divergent from that of the U.S., and he wants the rest of the world to follow China's plan, too," he said.

"The CCP is telling the story that democracy has different flavors -- that's it's not all Coca-Cola according to [foreign minister] Wang Yi -- and that ... its brand of 'full-process democracy' is a true form of democracy," Wang said.

"This argument has some appeal to developing countries."

Taiwan political analyst Shih Chien-yu said one of the key indicators of Sino-U.S. relations in the months to come will be whether the U.S. boycotts the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing.

“Regardless of whether China makes concessions on Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan, or Hong Kong, if the U.S. Secretary of State or another official from the executive branch ... is sent to the Winter Olympics, they will be turning out on parade for Xi Jinping," Shih said.

"It's possible that this summit may address this issue ... but we may not hear the final decision until later."

Wu Qiang, former politics lecturer at Beijing's Tsinghua University, said China is unlikely to extend an invitation at all, given its vulnerability to criticism over its human rights record.

"If Xi were to invite Biden to the Winter Olympics ... it would put him in the embarrassing position of having Biden counter it with Xinjiang or Hong Kong," Wu said.

"And if Beijing were thinking about inviting Biden to turn the Olympics into a staged political event, then Biden could use that opportunity to talk about China's domestic political issues."

"I think both sides are going to want to avoid doing this at the current juncture."

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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