The Biden-Xi meeting in San Francisco on the sidelines of the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit hasn't, on the face of it, produced any path-breaking results. If the objective was to bring about stability in ties, it is doubtful if that has been achieved. The deep differences between the US and China on the political, economic, technological, and strategic fronts cannot be bridged so easily.
Stability cannot be achieved through verbal positions. Policy changes are required. It is difficult to foresee China changing its approach to sovereignty issues, be it Taiwan, the South China and East China Seas, or elsewhere. It is not going to curb its Belt and Road initiative that brings more and more countries into its economic and political fold. It will continue to expand its influence in various parts of the globe to become a rival power to the US. It is not going to slow down its naval expansion. It is not going to slow down its naval expansion. It plans to expand its nuclear arsenal, develop new capabilities to push back the US navy from its coast as far as possible, retain control over some critical raw materials and technologies to buttress its power ambitions, and so on. It is already eating into US influence in various critical geographies, as, for example, in West Asia, which raises increasing geopolitical challenges to American power. China's declared ambitions with time lines to become central to global governance by 2049 will not be abandoned.
The US, too, is not going to step back from its strategy at political, technology and military levels to curb China's threatening rise. Its policy of strengthening alliances in the western Pacific will continue. It will continue to arm Taiwan. The Indo-Pacific concept, the deepening of the Quad, or the Aukus alliance will continue to underpin its Asia policy with the objective of deterring China.
The US will continue to pursue a policy of denying China access to highly advanced technologies such as semi-conductors, building domestic capabilities to reduce
dependence on China in critical areas, prevent intellectual property theft, restrict Chinese investments in sensitive areas and push Europe in this direction, create trusted and resilient supply chains as an alternative to dependence on China, do "friend-shoring" etc.
Stability in US-China ties also depends on more stability in the global system. The ongoing Ukraine conflict, the US sanctions on Russia that distort ties between third countries and Russia and impinge on the global financial system, the growing strategic closeness between Russia and China, the fall-out of the dangerous conflict erupting in West Asia, the ineffectiveness of the UN Security Council create instabilities that also put strains on US-China ties.
On both sides some tactical adjustments can, however, be made, and this was the purpose of the Biden-Xi meeting. The US has long sought to put some guardrails in place and prevent its differences with China on Taiwan and the South China and East China Seas
from escalating into an actual military conflict. Given the number of incidents of dangerously close contact between the naval ships and planes of the two countries in this region, the US has been pushing for the resumption of military contacts cancelled by China in August 2022. China had also suspended talks with the US on climate change. The US wanted to resume them as engaging China as the world's largest carbon dioxide emitter was essential to addressing climate change issues.
The US read-out of the Biden-Xi meeting shows the limited results achieved. Even allowing that Biden had to appear tough in his exchange with Xi to ward off accusations by the Republicans that he is weak on China, and also appear responsive to the anti-China mood in the American public, the read-out does not suggest any re-set of bilateral ties.
Biden has insisted that the US and China are in competition and that the US will invest in sources of strength at home and align with allies and partners, but that the US wants to
manage competition responsibly in order to prevent conflict and avoid confrontation. He reaffirmed support for a free and open Indo-Pacific, peace and stability in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, freedom of navigation and overflight, and underlined America's iron clad commitment to defending its allies. He warned against any unilateral change of status quo in Taiwan and called for Chinese restraint. He mentioned China's unfair trade practices and non-market economic practices. He was clear on preventing advanced US technologies from being used to undermine America's national security, though without unduly limiting trade and investment. He also spoke of America's international human rights commitments and specified concerns about human rights in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong.
On a more positive side, the US has been successful in restoring the high level military-to-military cooperation with China. The US-China Defence Policy Coordination talks, the Maritime Consultation Agreement meeting,
telephone communication between theatre commanders will be resumed. On the flow of Chinese produced Fentanyl through Mexico to the US, the two sides have agreed to cooperate in addressing global illicit drug manufacturing. US and China will also address risks of advanced AI systems and improved AI safety.
What Xi said at his meeting with Biden and to the US CEOs shows that while the Chinese President adopted a conciliatory tone and avoided getting into a robust spat with Biden - like in Alaska between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and China's Communist Party foreign affairs chief Yang Jiechi in March 2021 - his pushback on some issues was politely firm. Taiwan was non-negotiable, he said, and affirmed that it will inevitably become part of China. He asked the US to stop arming Taiwan and support peaceful reunification. He also cautioned that military communication between the two countries would be on the basis of equality and mutual respect. He noted that US actions were stifling China's development and that the US should not
scheme to suppress or contain China. Both sides should understand each others 'bottom lines. He asked the US not to interfere in China's internal affairs.
The fundamental question was whether the US and China were rivals or partners, Xi said. If the US considered China as its biggest rival, the most significant geopolitical challenge and an ever pressing threat, then wrong policies, wrong actions and wrong results will follow. Xi expressed China's willingness to be a partner and a friend to the US. There were the usual references to win-win cooperation, meeting each other half way and handling differences calmly.
During his press conference, in answer to a question, Biden called Xi a dictator in the sense that he was the leader of communist country with a system unlike that of the US, and this has been played up by the media as a major faux pas. This time, unlike on an earlier occasion, when Biden called Xi a dictator, the Chinese reaction has been more muted.
China can switch, as the occasion demands, from wolf warrior diplomacy to a veneer of sweet reasonableness and project itself a country that is unfairly targeted whereas it is a positive global citizen. Nothing it says can be taken merely at face value. It is buying time to build itself against the US. Will the US system be coherent enough to give it the time it needs?
(Kanwal Sibal was Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, France, and Russia, and Deputy Chief Of Mission in Washington.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.