Playing down hostility : The Tribune India

Playing down hostility

Biden-Xi talks at G20 Summit mark a shift in geopolitical equations

Playing down hostility

Catching up: Joe Biden and Xi Jinping had their first face-to-face encounter on the sidelines of the recent G20 Summit in Bali. AP

Shyam Saran

Former Foreign Secretary and senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research

This November has seen a hectic round of international and regional conferences and bilateral summits. US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping had their first face-to-face encounter on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Bali on November 14. It was a three-hour meeting and appears to have covered the whole gamut of Sino-US relations. It marked a thaw in a relationship which has witnessed rising tensions and confrontation in recent years, raising fears that the world could be on the brink of another Cold War, this time between the US and China. Both sides have stepped back from the brink, decided to re-engage and avoid conflict. What is of interest, apart from the length of the meeting, is how the US and China reported its contents. The White House readout is barely a page and mostly focused on what Biden said to Xi. The Chinese official report is four pages and unusually detailed, containing not only what Xi said on various issues but a Chinese paraphrase of what Biden said. Unlike the White House readout, the Chinese report sets out the main tenets of China’s current foreign policy.

If China’s official readout is a true reflection of what Biden said, it would mean an entirely new and much more conciliatory posture towards China.

The summit has led to the revival of the multiple mechanisms through which Sino-US relations are managed in all their complexity. These had been suspended in the wake of the visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in August. China saw the visit as provocative and in violation of the one-China policy which it believes the US committed itself to as part of the normalisation of relations nearly 50 years ago. Certain recent statements by Biden suggested that the US would come to the defence of Taiwan if it was attacked by China. This was seen as a shift from the long-standing policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ declared by the US, leaving it uncertain whether it would, in fact, come to the defence of Taiwan. This posture of strategic ambiguity was considered to be the most effective in maintaining the status quo on Taiwan’s status.

Biden assured Xi that the US stance on Taiwan remained unchanged. The White House readout states: ‘On Taiwan, he (Biden) laid out in detail that our one-China policy has not changed, the US opposes any unilateral changes to the status quo by either side. And the world has an interest in the maintenance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. He raised US objections to the PRC’s coercive and increasingly aggressive actions towards Taiwan, which undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and in the broader region and jeopardized global prosperity.’

The Chinese news agency readout underscores the sensitive nature of the Taiwan issue for China: ‘President Xi gave a full account of the origin of the Taiwan question and China’s principled position. He stressed that the Taiwan question is at the very core of China’s core interests, the bedrock of the political foundation of China-US relations and the first red line that must not be crossed in China-US relations.’

The Taiwan issue being the ‘very core of China’s core interests’ is new and reflects China’s heightened sensitivity and perception of threat from the US. The Chinese statement reports much more of what Biden may have said to reassure Xi. For example, the White House readout does not contain the following reported in the Chinese statement, that the US ‘has no intention to use Taiwan as a tool to seek advantages in competition with China or to contain China’.

The US has stepped back from its more assertive stance on Taiwan, recognising its acute sensitivity for China. The White House readout refers to Biden’s condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and, in particular, the Russian threat to use nuclear weapons. It reports that both leaders ‘reiterated their agreement that a nuclear war should never be fought and can never be won and underscored their opposition to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine’.

This is missing from the Chinese report which merely refers to Chinese promotion of peace and the need for dialogue.

Xi Jinping has often spoken about the unprecedented changes taking place in the international situation and the balance of power, which represents an opportunity for China to move to the centre of the international order. This has been interpreted as China’s determination to overturn the international order led by the US and reject the laws and norms that uphold that order. In the Chinese report, Xi is reported as assuring Biden that ‘China does not seek to change the existing international order or interfere in the internal affairs of the US and has no intention to challenge or displace the US’. If this was articulated at the summit, it is unclear why the White House report omits it. This is unusually conciliatory, though it may not reflect real Chinese intent.

In matching conciliatory language ascribed to Biden in the Chinese report, it is stated that the US does not seek a new Cold War, does not seek to revitalise alliances against China, does not support ‘Taiwan independence’, does not support ‘two Chinas or one-China one-Taiwan’ and has no intention to have a conflict with China. The US side has no intention to seek ‘decoupling from China, to halt China’s economic development, or to contain China’.

If this is a true reflection of what Biden said, it would mean an entirely new and much more conciliatory posture towards China. Would the US really intend not to ‘revitalise alliances against China’? Its policies hitherto suggest the opposite.

While a more detailed analysis is necessary, one gets the impression that there is a much more serious effort to pursue a détente in the Sino-US relations than would appear at first sight. This needs to be carefully watched as it unfolds because it will have an impact on India’s own geopolitical positioning.

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