November 15th. US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in a mansion near San Francisco.
Photo: The White House
This hasn’t exactly been a year of good news when it comes to our war-torn, beleaguered planet, but on November 15th, U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping took one small step back from the precipice. Until they talked in a mansion near San Francisco, it seemed as if their countries were locked in a downward spiral of taunts and provocations that might, many experts feared, result in a full-blown crisis, even a war — even, god save us all, the world’s first nuclear war. Thanks to that encounter, though, such dangers appear to have receded. Still, the looming question facing both countries is whether that retreat from disaster — what the Chinese are now calling the “San Francisco vision” — will last through 2024, notes ‘The Counter Punch’.
Prior to the summit, there seemed few discernible obstacles to some kind of trainwreck, whether a complete breakdown in relations, a disastrous trade war, or even a military clash over Taiwan or contested islands in the South China Sea. Beginning with last February’s Chinese balloon incident and continuing with a series of bitter trade disputes and recurring naval and air incidents over the summer and fall, events seemed to be leading with a certain grim inevitability toward some sort of catastrophe. After one such incident last spring, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman warned that “the smallest misstep by either side could ignite a U.S.-China war that would make Ukraine look like a neighborhood dust-up.”
Not surprisingly, for both Biden and Xi, the primary objective of the San Francisco summit was to halt that downward spiral. As Xi reportedly asked Biden, “Should [the U.S. and China] engage in mutually beneficial cooperation or antagonism and confrontation? This is a fundamental question on which disastrous mistakes must be avoided.”
From all accounts, it appears that the two presidents did at least stop the slide toward confrontation. While acknowledging that competition would continue unabated, both sides agreed to “manage” their differences in a “responsible” manner and avoid conflict-inducing behavior. While the United States and China “are in competition,” Biden reportedly told Xi, “the world expects the United States and China to manage competition responsibly to prevent it from veering into conflict, confrontation, or a new Cold War.” Xi reportedly endorsed this precept, saying that China would strive to manage its differences with Washington in a peaceful fashion.
Still, neither president agreed to any fundamental alterations in policy that might have truly shifted bilateral relations in a more cooperative direction. In fact, on the most crucial issues dividing the two countries — Taiwan, trade, and technology transfers — they made no progress. As Xue Gong, a China scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, put it, whatever the two presidents did accomplish, “the Biden-Xi meeting will not change the direction of U.S.-China relations away from strategic competition.”
Assuming U.S. and Chinese leaders remain committed to a nonconfrontational stance, they will face powerful forces driving them ever closer to the abyss, including both seemingly intractable issues that divide their countries and deeply entrenched domestic interests intent on provoking a confrontation.
Although several highly contentious issues have the potential to ignite a crisis in 2024, the two with the greatest potential to provoke disaster are Taiwan and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
For now, the Biden administration’s response to a possible Chinese invasion is governed by a principle of “strategic ambiguity” under which military intervention is implied but not guaranteed. According to the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, any attempt by China to seize Taiwan by military means will be considered a matter “of grave concern to the United States,” but not one automatically requiring a military response. In recent years, however, increasing numbers of prominent Washington politicians have called for the replacement of “strategic ambiguity” with a doctrine of “strategic clarity,” which would include an unequivocal pledge to defend Taiwan in case of an invasion. President Biden has lent credence to this stance by repeatedly claiming that it is U.S. policy (it isn’t), obliging his aides to eternally walk back his words.
Of course, the question of how China and the U.S. would respond to a Taiwanese declaration of independence has yet to be put to the test.
Should the DPP candidate William Lai win on January 13th, the Biden administration might come under enormous pressure from Republicans — and many Democrats — to accelerate the already rapid pace of arms deliveries to the island. That would, of course, be viewed by Beijing as tacit American support for an accelerated drive toward independence and (presumably) increase its inclination to invade. In other words, Joe Biden could face a major military crisis remarkably early in 2024.
Given the dangers in Taiwan and the South China Sea, Presidents Biden and Xi will have to exercise extreme patience and prudence to prevent the ignition of a full-blown crisis in 2024. Hopefully, the understanding they developed in San Francisco, along with new crisis-management tools like enhanced military-to-military communications, will help them manage any problems that do arise.
In both the U.S. and China, vast military-industrial operations have blossomed, fed by mammoth government disbursements intended to bolster their ability to defeat the other’s military in all-out, high-tech combat. In this hothouse environment, military bureaucracies and arms-makers on each side have come to assume that perpetuating an environment of mutual suspicion and hostility could prove advantageous, leaving key politicians ever more obliged to shower them with money and power.
Presidents Biden and Xi are likely to face a series of demanding challenges in 2024 from the seemingly intractable disputes between their two nations. Under the best of circumstances, perhaps they’ll be able to avoid a major blow-up, while making progress on less contentious issues like climate change and drug trafficking. To do so, however, they’ll have to resist powerful forces of entrenched bellicosity. If they can’t, the fierce wars in Ukraine and Gaza in 2023 could end up looking like relatively minor events as the two great powers face off against each other in a conflict that could all too literally take this planet to hell and back.
But the final question is –why does the United States so stubbornly want to weaken China and any other competitors in the world? Do you know the answer?
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