Ms Ayesha Zafar is currently pursuing her Bachelor's in International Relations from National Defence University, Islamabad. She has authored multiple academic publications including research articles and book chapters. Her areas of interest include Middle Eastern politics, the geopolitics of Central Asia, and the Indo-Pacific region
The Virtual Summit
On 15th November 2021, an over three-hour virtual summit was held between the two major competitors of the world, China and the United States. The Biden-Xi summit though was intended to discuss and resolve major disputes between the two states, ended up with both sides showing no compromise to settle matters crucial to their national interests.
Despite having shown a good step towards improving bilateral ties, no concrete actions were accomplished as a result of the meeting. Both sides underscored the points of contention and a list of mutual grievances that accentuated the depth of division between China and the US. President Biden pointed to a few major concerns that have always been a point of contention between the two states such as China’s human rights abuses, unfair trade, and economic policies.
China, on the other hand, dubbed US support for Taiwan as “playing with fire”, and warned against the US strategy to contain China’s influence by dividing the world into alliances or blocs. President Xi stated that any such act would inevitably bring disaster to the world. Nevertheless, such summits between the world’s two superpowers is a signal towards an effort to improve ties.
President Biden stated, “It seems to me that we need to establish some common-sense guardrails”. Adding to this, he said, “It seems to me our responsibility as leaders of China and the United States is to ensure that our competition between our countries does not veer into conflict, whether intended or unintended, just simple, straightforward competition.”
In response, President Xi also showed good gestures by exhibiting intentions to move relations in a positive direction as can be gauged from his statement that, “although it’s not as good as a face-to-face meeting, I’m very happy to see my old friend”. Although the two leaders have already spoken via telephone twice this year, the Biden-Xi summit was a much-needed initiative to address key problems that both states faced.
President Biden underscored the need to keep the “communication lines open” since there are a plethora of disputes such as the Taiwan issue, the militarization of the South China Sea, and China’s intellectual property rights, etcetera. For China, the meeting amounts to setting a new stage for improved relations after having troubling years with former US President Donald Trump.
Importantly, the Biden-Xi summit is like a win for China without compromise as it remained successful in retelling the US of its red lines and what China expects from the US vis-à-vis the issues crucial to its national interests. While the US held this meeting from the Roosevelt Room at the White House, the Chinese attended from inside a chamber in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
Taiwan Crisis: Playing with Fire
Taiwan has always been a major point of tension between China and the United States. Therefore, President Xi has clearly warned President Biden not to test China on the issue of Taiwan as it has maintained its claim over the island state since 1949 and sees it as an issue close to its national security.
During the virtual summit, President Xi told his US counterpart that “We are patient and are willing to strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification with the utmost sincerity”. Thus, it’s not yet clear how the US would respond militarily in case China attacks Taiwan, but it is certain that the US doesn’t recognize China’s claim over the island state. Hence, Chinese assertive language coupled with its growing military competence clashes with US interests as far as Taiwan is concerned.
Trade Relations: A Hopeful Note
Trade is a key component in strengthening bilateral ties between states. As far as the US and China are concerned, both have caught up in an economic struggle, with the trade war persisting between the two states since 2018. Nevertheless, with President Biden coming to power in January 2021, a tilt towards improving economic relations can be seen.
Importantly, the Biden-Xi summit was held right after President Biden signed a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that would deliver around $550 billion investment for the coming five years, touching everything from infrastructure to water and energy systems.
Although the meeting apparently brought no progress in trade issues, it did strike a hopeful note for the future economic relations as President Xi stressed the trade relationship to be “mutually beneficial” while reiterating that the US should not politicize trade.
Human Rights: Matter of Grave Concern
President Xi has long been criticized by the US for the country’s human rights violations. Nevertheless, when it comes to the issue of human rights, China has always denied such accusations. Something similar happened in the Biden-Xi summit wherein Beijing showed a willingness to discuss human rights concerns, yet warned against any lectures from outside.
In response to this, President Biden stated “We do not approve of interfering in other countries’ internal affairs through human rights issues”. Henceforth, the human rights violations by China had — and will — remain a major point of contention between the two states unless and until China shows an inclination towards improving the situation in the country.
Climate Change: A Common Ground
Climate change is the only issue that finds itself as a common ground between the two nation-states. While recognizing the urgency to take actions against climate change, China and the US have signed a surprise climate pact at COP’26 held in Glasgow, UK. Likewise, both states have pledged to cut emissions and ensure commitment towards working collectively to mitigate the threat posed by climate change during the virtual summit.
President Xi called the climate policy to be a new highlight of cooperation with the United States. Nevertheless, a key point that could potentially lead to conflict between the two states is the role of the developing versus the developed states. During the summit, China stressed the difference in responsibilities of the US as a developed state and that of China as a developing state regarding climate change mitigation.
Conclusively, these were the key issues that were discussed during the virtual meeting between China and the United States. To some, it reflects the beginning of a new cold war, yet President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan clearly mentioned last week, “we have the choice not to do that.”
Therefore, this virtual summit is not implying any apparent chances of a cold war between China and the US. It was only meant to ensure that the right choices be made and that any misunderstandings be avoided. To conclude, the meeting can be termed as a healthy talk in an effort to maintain friendly ties, but it did not end up in major breakthroughs.
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