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Biden-Xi meeting: A modus vivendi and a reality check for Beijing?

The rise of nationalist sentiments globally and in Europe, as seen in the premiership of Giorgia Meloni in Italy and Rishi Sunak in Britain, are conflating political circumstances for a global pushback against China’s actions where these countries are ready to call out China in a more forthright manner.

Collins Chong Yew Keat Nov 18, 2022
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Biden-Xi meeting (Photo: Twitter)

The much-anticipated meeting between US President Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping in Bali, Indonesia on the sidelines of the G20 summit, projected no new concrete intent by both sides to compromise on their own core tenets and interests. It did, however, project two fundamental factors that will guide their confrontation and competition going forward. 

Xi went into the meeting with more of a quest to derive the best outcome, from a position of relative weakness as compared to Biden. China’s sagging economy and diminishing long-term economic outlook have forced Beijing to take a more conciliatory stand, a noticeable shift from its previous belligerent and wolf-warrior confrontational approach.

This can be seen in the fact that China did not respond with immediate belligerence to Washington's new restrictions on advanced semiconductors, as compared to the previous tit-for-tat reactions on tariff countermeasures, especially during President Donald Trump’s tenure. A significant downturn in the property market and economic confidence that took a serious hit with its zero-Covid policy have all but choked its growth and upended decades of breakneck progress and development. This has caused the need to arrest the slide, create sustainable solutions, and secure economic and resource settings with other global players. 

For as much as Xi wanted to consolidate and strengthen internal capacity and self-reliance to propel Beijing’s future military and socio-economic competitiveness, it cannot afford to continue the self-boasting and overconfident tone without the US help and cooperation. 

Calling out China's aggression
 
The rise of nationalist sentiments in Europe, as in the premiership of Giorgia Meloni in Italy and Rishi Sunak in Britain, are conflating political circumstances for a global pushback against China’s actions where these countries are ready to call out China in a more forthright manner. Sunak has reiterated that China is the biggest state-based threat to UK's security and that he will be highly aligned to current allies in a more concerted effort, while also not ruling out arming Taiwan. 

The same confrontational and critical stance is seen in the recent approach of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet ministers who are calling on democracies to turn their backs on China and other autocratic nations.
 
Washington’s efforts to ramp up pressure on China across economic, diplomatic and military fronts over the years have been cast by Beijing as an effort to curb China’s rightful rise. For Washington, it realises that its decades-old hope of co-opting China into a West-led global order with its eventual shift to freedom and democracy is no longer a possibility, and that a policy reorientation was needed to curb Beijing’s "aggressive expansionism".  

For all the hype and arguments on America’s decline and diminishing global power, Washington is confident that it has the military strength and institutional capacity to deter Beijing from changing the global status quo and the rules-based order.

Beijing needs Washington more

Biden said he wanted the US and China to manage differences and prevent competition from becoming a conflict, not out of inferiority or fear, but out of a sense of collective global responsibility as the dominant power that has the wider good of humanity at heart. 

It is also intended to reassure allies that the US is a calm, responsible and stabilizing player,  countering any narrative that Washington is constantly provoking and instigating China. Both Beijing and Washington are aware of the real capacities, both in military and economic tools, of the US to deter China’s potential violations of the global order. By demonstrating a conciliatory approach and showing readiness to help and work with China to solve pressing global issues and transnational challenges including global health and food security, Washington reaps the long-term benefit of taking the moral high ground and willing to be accommodative for the interests of the wider world.

China needs the US more than the latter will need Beijing; Washington will need Beijing to continue adhering to the rules-based order and be a responsible major global player, including cooperation for the greater good in shared challenges and concerns. Beijing needs the US both in ensuring a free and safe global trade, as well as the technological and economic bases for Beijing to achieve its goal of economic stability and realisation of its "Chinese Dream".

Both Biden and Xi might play down the prospects of a new Cold War or a potential hot war, but realities on the ground underline the inevitability of the ongoing polarization and alienation teetering on a Cold War, even more intensified than the original Cold War with the Soviets. The main focus now for both is how to ensure the rules set out are adhered to and understood by both to hold back the triggers of a full-blown conflict out of miscalculations and misperceived intentions and fears.

(The author is a Kuala Lumpur-based strategic and security analyst. Views are personal. He can be contacted at collins@um.edu.my)

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