View from India: No serious effort to reset US-China relations at San Francisco summit

10:27 19.11.2023 •

Biden greets Xi during APEC summit meeting.

The signal from the summit meeting between presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping in San Francisco is that a rocky year in the US-China relationship had a makeover in atmospherics. Serious differences remain and there is the also the challenge of navigating the two high-stakes presidential elections in 2024 — in Taiwan in January and in the US in November, notes M.K. Bhadrakumar, Indian Ambassador and prominent international observer

Both Washington and Beijing gave a positive account of the summit and were eager to display successful diplomacy. For Biden, there is great urgency to claim foreign policy success when the proxy war in Ukraine has been practically lost and another war just commenced in the Middle East. War, after all, is failure of diplomacy. 

Although it was too much to expect a breakthrough in the relationship, the four-hour long talks produced some results — the two sides agreed to work together to control flows of narcotic drugs, resume military-to-military communications, cooperate on risks posed by artificial intelligence, and expand exchanges in education, business, and culture and increase the number of flights between their countries. Something is better than nothing. There was no joint statement issued after the summit.

At San Francisco summit, neither side gave away anything at all. Xi asserted that no matter what US does, reunification of Taiwan is “inevitable.” Xi proposed “peaceful co-existence”, the chosen way of life between the Soviet Union and America, but Biden insisted that “the United States and China are in competition” and that the US “will always stand up for its interests, its values, and its allies and partners.”

If Beijing hoped for a return to the “Bali spirit,” Washington won’t even acknowledge any such thing. The US apparently has no recollection of Biden giving any such “five noes” assurances. The White House readout of the San Francisco meeting does not mention these assurances, either. Clearly, there are substantial gaps in strategic perception and mutual understanding. And there is reason to doubt whether any real negotiations took place at all during the 4 hours of conversation.

A close study of the two readouts — and the media reports later — gives the impression that primarily, Biden was grandstanding before his domestic political audience while Xi spoke with an eye on the global audience.

However, although the summit didn’t appear to have made serious effort to reset the relationship by addressing each other’s vital interests and core concerns, it is a good thing that communication links have been reopened, which will be useful for managing the relationship and building “guardrails” around it and a “floor” under it.

Meanwhile, there is a sliver of hope that on the single most explosive issue potentially — Taiwan — fortuitous circumstances may calm the choppy waters. No doubt, the Taiwan election will be of pivotal importance for the US-China relationship, for, if the two main opposition parties, the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), who have finally decided to join hands, field a joint candidate in the January 13 election, it will be a formidable ticket assured of an easy victory.

That, of course, will impact the delicate dynamics of the Taiwan question, given the clear willingness of the KMT and TPP to jointly improve cross-strait dialogues after the election that offers the prospect of something of a welcome respite for the Washington-Beijing-Taipei triangle.

The big question remains: Did Biden succeed in affirming that notwithstanding the defeat in Ukraine war and the forever war just beginning in the Middle East, the US is in “a position of strength” in the relationship with China? Framed differently, is China paying heed to US entreaties to roll back its relations with Russia and Iran? The indications are to the contrary, M.K. Bhadrakumar stresses.


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