On November 15, 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping met via video conference.
In the run-up to such ‘summit’ meetings, the commentariat (of which this writer is a member) goes into overdrive to predict what will happen. And in the immediate aftermath, another few million words are written (each day) about what happened and what it all meant – generally with scant regard for any congruence with what they had written in the run-up.
In this case, it’s easy to describe what happened. President Biden read off his ‘position’. And Xi Jinping stated his ‘position’ to his ‘old friend’ President Biden. No surprises there.
But it bears a closer look because in some important ways it was more useful than it might have seemed.
Rarely at these meetings does one side roll over, or both sides simultaneously realize that their differences are all just one big misunderstanding.
And nothing in the Biden/Xi meeting suggested either side was willing to compromise or back down.
Indeed, in the immediate aftermath, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) continued sending large numbers of military aircraft towards Taiwan, and the Chinese Navy sailed a nuclear submarine down the middle of the Taiwan Strait – surfaced so everyone would notice.
And the Chinese Coast Guard drove off a Philippine supply ship en route to resupply Philippine Marines on Second Thomas Shoal – inside Philippine waters.
Nor is there any evidence the PRC is inclined to make any of the following gestures to lower tensions or show good faith:
- Reduce pressure on Japan in the East China Sea.
- Move PLA troops back from the Indian border, cease – or at least slow – construction of infrastructure in the same area that is at best dual use (but is probably only military), and reduce their presence on the Tibetan Plateau.
- Ease up on incursions into Indonesian maritime territory.
- Open the Xinjiang concentration camps.
- Let Jimmy Lai and other Hong Kong freedom figures out of jail.
- Reduce its military buildup.
- Stop building coal fired power plants.
- End economic sanctions on Australia.
One might reasonably claim these meetings are useless. But there is a certain usefulness in the parties being able to size each other up – and to see if there’s any room for maneuver or compromise – or to smell weakness (or detect strength) – assuming the worker bees haven’t figured that out beforehand.
And some experts argue that face-to-face meetings – even virtually – allow the participants to see (and think of) each other as human beings – and thus reduce the risk of open hostilities while increasing chances of a ‘breakthrough’.
Maybe. But there are also plenty of cases where countries’ top leaders and/or senior officials meet and a short while later their armies start slaughtering each other.
Regardless, there is at least one very useful outcome of the Biden-Xi meeting, even if neither side budged on its position.
You see, the Chinese official statements and readouts on the meeting offer insight into what Beijing is most worried about. And the U.S. administration ought to find that helpful for tuning up its China strategy.
- Taiwan. Beijing called Taiwan a core interest and vowed to take ‘resolute measures’ if necessary to seize Taiwan. More than just wanting to recover what the Chinese Communists claim is lost territory, the strategic, military and political blow to the United States would be immense. If the mighty United States is unable to defend 24 million free people in Taiwan, the effects will ripple world-wide – to China’s advantage. Biden’s people ought to recognize how serious Xi Jinping is about Taiwan, and also ask if they wish to absorb a global humiliation far worse than what happened in Afghanistan, and that would undercut the United States’ position in Asia.
- Human Rights. China is opposed to ‘using human rights to meddle in other countries’ internal affairs. This shows how sensitive the PRC leadership is to the human rights issue and how effectively it can be wielded – especially if used as the basis of financial and business investment boycotts – as was done to apartheid-era South Africa.
- Trade pressure and technology embargoes. ‘The U.S. should stop abusing…the concept of national security to suppress China’s businesses.’ Beijing is complaining because it hurts. This, and potential human rights boycotts threaten to cut PRC access to foreign exchange – including through foreign direct investment in China, exports, or limits on Chinese companies operating overseas. Beijing doesn’t have anywhere near enough convertible currency to cover its needs, and if the flow dries up the Chinese regime is in deep trouble.
- Energy supplies. Xi mentioned the need for China, the U.S. , and the international community to ‘jointly protect global energy security…’ This too highlights a huge PRC vulnerability – not having enough energy resources to power the country.
- ‘Developing power’ leverage. In spite of his reference to ‘global energy security’ (which essentially means fossil fuels), Xi also invoked the magic words ‘climate change’ as a way of trying to ensure that the billions China receives through these accords continues. That flow is justified by, as Xi said, China being the ‘largest developing country in the world’. In spite of China’s undeniable economic strength – which is touts in other venues – in these sorts of international fora it continues to use the even more important word ‘developing’ because it is worth trillions to Beijing. In the case of ‘climate change’, deploying ‘developing country’ leverage traps ‘developed’ countries into ‘going first’ and giving concessions, hobbling their economies to achieve carbon reductions.
- Covid – and particularly its origins. Xi noted that, ‘politicizing diseases does no good.’ Not surprisingly, Beijing is hypersensitive on this point and has tried to distract attention from the question of Covid’s origins since, well, its origin.
- Alliances. The references to ‘groupings and divisions’ – is perhaps talking about AUKUS – the recent U.S., Australia, UK alliance, but it highlights Beijing’s fear of the U.S. and/or other like-minded countries banding together to present a unified front against Chinese military, economic, and political pressure. The Chinese communists much prefer taking on countries one-by-one when it has the advantage.
- ‘System fragility.’ The Chinese stated that nobody should try to change another country’s ‘system’. This suggests Beijing’s concern over its regime’s stability despite its bluster – and its vulnerability to a well-run political warfare campaign.
The PRC has kindly laid out its pressure points. This ought to give Washington a good idea of what a counter-strategy should look like and where to apply pressure. The Trump administration did, in fact, target most of these. And President Biden has kept most of them in place – though it refuses to hold Beijing to account for Covid – or at least its unwillingness to cooperate in determining the virus’ origins. Team Biden also appears keen to give Beijing what it wants on ‘climate change.’
However, if the Biden administration does what the Chinese are telling them not to do, the next Biden-Xi summit might finally give the commentariat something real to write about.