The recent much anticipated meeting between US President Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping projected no new concrete intent by both sides to compromise on their core tenets and interests. It did, however, project two fundamental factors that will guide the immediate term of fierce competition, moving forward. Xi went into the meeting with more of a quest to derive the best outcome from the meeting, from a position of greater relative weakness as compared to Biden. China’s sagging economy and diminishing long-term economic outlook have pushed Beijing to seek a more conciliatory tone, a gradual shift from its previous belligerent and wolf-warrior confrontational approach.
This can be seen in the fact that China did not respond with immediate force to Washington's new restrictions on advanced semiconductors, as compared to the previous knee-jerk and tit-for-tat reactions on tariff countermeasures, especially during Trump’s tenure.
A significant downturn in the property market and the economic confidence that took a serious hit, with its zero-Covid policy have all choked its economic growth and upended patterns of continuous decades-old breakneck economic runaway progress. This has caused the need to arrest the slide, create sustainable solutions, and to secure economic and resource settings with other players. For as much as Xi wanted to consolidate and strengthen internal capacity and self-reliance to propel Beijing’s future military and socio-economic competitiveness, it cannot afford to continue the self-boasting and overconfident tone of its internal readiness to serve its purpose of ensuring its long-term competitiveness and survival.
Xi realizes that as he put behind him the demand and trapping of foreign policy limitation in leading up to the 20th National Congress, he now has a greater opening to mold the direction of Beijing’s international perception and overtures in shoring up its declining economic prospects, without being perceived as weak by party rivals. This slight change of tone projects the level of fear, realization, and admission that past approaches do not bring the desired outcome of ensuring Beijing’s internal economic drive. This is not just confined to the need to ensure regional and global economic and trade partnerships remain robust, as Beijing will need to scramble to repair the dented image and distrust on its increased bellicosity and intent regionally and globally. No longer is relevant the era where Beijing can take for granted the economic expectations on foreign players to remain reliant on its clout and support, now that its diminishing prospects will require Beijing to depend more on the West and other emerging player,s especially in critical areas of food and energy security.
The rise of nationalist sentiments globally and in Europe, as in the premiership of Giorgia Meloni in Italy and Rishi Sunak in Britain, create a global pushback against China’s actions where they are more ready to call out China in a more blatant manner to protect their national interests and perhaps to shore up internal political legitimacy. Sunak has reiterated that China is the biggest state-based threat to UK security and that he will be highly aligned with its current allies in a more concerted effort, while also not ruling out arming Taiwan. The same confrontational and critical stance is seen in the recent approach of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet ministers who are calling on democracies to increasingly turn their backs on China and other autocratic nations.
Beijing has more to gain from this meeting in both seeking a clear stand on its red line and limitations, and in getting the Americans to concede more in securing better economic gains and in playing their part to work together with the Chinese for both a win-win and global implications. Negotiating from a position of weakness and the need to reapproach its ties and dependence on other states to ensure internal redistribution of growth and to ensure regime security, Beijing is wise and meticulous to want to be seen as steadfast in its messaging, at the same time put the ball in the court of Washington to act and accommodate accordingly.
Washington’s efforts to ramp up pressure on China across economic, diplomatic, and military fronts over the years, have been cast as a classic narrative by Beijing that it is out to curb China’s rightful rise and place at the top of the global system. For Washington, it realizes that its decades-old supportive approach to Beijing with the hope of its eventual shift to freedom and democracy is no longer feasible and that an inevitable reorientation is needed to face Beijing’s runaway rise. For all the hype and arguments on America’s decline and diminishing power, Washington is confident of its own staying power and lasting capacity to deter Beijing from changing the global status quo and the rules-based order.
Biden went into the meeting with his strategic counterattacking pursuit, yet sugarcoated with a conciliatory and consistent message to be sent to Beijing not with the hope that Beijing will tone down its tactics and approaches, but in ensuring Xi and his elites get a direct and first hand messaging of purpose and stances by Washington. The reassuring tone sent to Xi by stating that the US is not looking for a new Cold War or a confrontational conflict with China is not a strategic weakness as argued by some, it is a strong embedded message of playing the higher moral card and in reinforcing America’s unyielding stature and steadfast upholding of values, norms and rules.
Biden said he wanted the US and China to manage differences and prevent competition from becoming a conflict, not out of relative inferiority or fear, but out of the sheer nature of collective global responsibility as the dominant power in preventing wider negative implications to the world and humanity.
It is also intended to reassure allies that the US will be seen as the calm, responsible, and stabilizing player, countering the narrative that it is provoking and instigating China. Both Beijing and Washington are aware of the real capacities both in military and economic tools of the US to deter China’s potential violations of the order if need be. In coming to the meeting, the US has the edge of capacity and can choose a more confrontational approach in calling out China’s actions in the region and even admonishing Beijing and push it to take a greater form of responsibility for the Covid pandemic, but Washington wanted to be the power with morality and responsibility. By showing a conciliatory tone and to show readiness to help and work with China to solve pressing global issues and transnational challenges including global health and food security, Washington reaps the long-term benefit of taking the moral high road and being willing to be accommodative for the interests of the wider world.
China needs the US more than the latter will need Beijing. Washington will need Beijing to continue adhering to the rules based order and to be a responsible major global player, including cooperation for the greater good in the causes of shared challenges and concerns. Beijing needs the US both in ensuring a free and safe global trade, as well as the technological and economic bases for Beijing to survive and achieve its goal of economic stability and transformation for its Chinese Dream rejuvenation.
For all its challenges now, both in its internal socio-economic barriers and decline and in facing a renewed global systemic threat, Beijing is in need of the West’s restraint and support, from the stability in trade, and critical sector supply chain to food and energy security.
Biden, in his baggage of intending to lower the temperature and in clarifying the lines for both sides, is hoping to bolster a strengthened soft power and narrative advantage. In gaining this upper hand, the hope to lure Beijing into a false sense of misperception that the US is now weak enough to come in with a conciliatory purpose, will not be a predominant feature as Washington’s purpose is to lay out the rules of the game clearly to Beijing, and that it will not compromise in preserving the status quo of the rules-based order of peace and stability. If China continues its actions unperturbed, the US will leverage its established card and chip to frame the narrative on China’s hypocrisy and true intent and China will no longer be seen as a victim, with its credibility turning on itself.
Both Biden and Xi might play down the prospects of a new Cold War or a potential hot war, but realities and happenings on the ground already underlined the inevitability of the ongoing polarization and approaches of a Cold War, more intensified than the original Cold War with the Soviets. The main focus now for both is how to ensure the rules set out are adhered to and understood by both, to prevent the triggers of a full-blown conflict out of miscalculations and misperceived intentions and fears.
Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya for more than nine years. His areas of focus include strategic and security studies, America’s foreign policy and power projection, regional conflicts and power parity analysis. He is a regular contributor in providing Op-eds and analytical articles for both local and international media on various contemporary global and regional issues. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.