Admittedly, expectations for the November 4 meeting between Presidents Biden of the United States and Xi of China were not particularly high, so no one should be surprised that little of real substance emerged from their encounter in Bali, Indonesia. Both leaders laid out their concerns about the other side’s behavior while promising to contain their mutual antagonisms at a level below that of armed conflict. They also agreed to increase high-level contacts—Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit Beijing early next year as part of this process—and to resume formal talks over climate change. But neither leader appeared to give ground on any of the major fissures in US-China relations, so the risk of conflict is bound to persist.
In fact, the meeting occurred at a time when tensions between the two countries was already at a very high level, and many analysts were beginning to suggest that a US-China war—probably triggered by a confrontation over Taiwan—was becoming a very real possibility. Accordingly, the Biden-Xi encounter was intended less to achieve diplomatic breakthroughs than to prevent relations from deteriorating even further.
By meeting in person and discussing their differences openly, leaders from both sides sought to lower tensions and adopt measures to prevent future crises from spiraling out of control. In this, they may have succeeded: Both leaders indicated after the meeting that they had shared their primary concerns with each other—their “red lines,” as Biden put it—and agreed to keep lines of communication open so as to prevent dangerous miscalculations in a crisis. “We’re going to compete vigorously, but I’m not looking for conflict,” Biden affirmed. “I’m looking to manage this competition responsibly.”
But neither side openly discussed what was really at stake at the Bali meeting: a growing struggle between the world’s two most powerful nations for domination of the Asia-Pacific region. As China’s economic, technological, and military capabilities have grown, its leaders have sought to play a more paramount role in this vast region, thought to be the epicenter of the global economy. The United States, long the dominant power in the western Pacific, is determined to prevent China from achieving this objective.
This struggle is rarely discussed as such in formal US and Chinese statements, but was accorded prominence in two key documents recently released by the two sides: Xi Jinping’s October 16 report to the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), and President Biden’s National Security Strategy of mid-October.
Even the title of Xi’s October 16 report, “Hold High the Great Banner of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics and Strive in Unity to Build a Modern Socialist Country in All Respects,” hints at some of its major themes: the advancement of national unity, economic growth, military modernization, and technological achievement under the leadership of the CCP. But underlying all of this is an overarching objective: to reach parity with the United States as a global power, despite US efforts to resist this aspiration.
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“After basically realizing modernization,” the report states, “we will continue to work hard and build China into a great modern socialist country that leads the world in terms of composite national strength and international influence by the middle of the century.” This aspiration—aka “the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation”—entails, among other things, achieving technological parity with the United States and securing the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland. “Resolving the Taiwan question and realizing China’s complete reunification is, for the Party, a historic mission and an unshakable commitment.”
From the Biden administration’s perspective, these aspirations represent the greatest long-term threats to US security. “The most pressing challenge facing our vision [of a US-centric world] is from powers that layer authoritarian governance with a revisionist foreign policy,” the National Security Strategy states. Russia is one such menace, but China “is the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to advance that objective.”
It follows from this, the Biden document argues, that the principal aim of US strategy must be to prevent China from attaining the economic, military, and technological capacities required to achieve its objective. This requires, among other things, denying China access to the sophisticated computer technology it needs to achieve technological parity with the US and ensuring that Taiwan will never be reunited with the mainland by force.
These two core issues have become more heated in recent months, with China stepping up its provocative military maneuvers near Taiwan and the Biden administration imposing tough restrictions on the export advanced semiconductors and chip-making technology to China. These critical issues were fully aired at the Biden-Xi meeting, but it is clear from the “readouts” of the discussions provided by the two sides that no progress was made on either of them, and that, in fact, these divisions are likely to prove even more fractious in the months and years ahead.
On Taiwan, Biden did not repeat his claim that the US would intervene should China invade the island—a claim he has made at least four times in the past year—but did insist that the US “opposes any unilateral changes to the status quo by either side.” Xi was far more definitive, saying outright that US intervention in the Taiwan issue risked all-out war with China. Xi “stressed that the Taiwan question is at the very core of China’s core interests…and the first red line that must not be crossed in China-US relations,” according to the Foreign Ministry readout. “Anyone that seeks to split Taiwan from China will be violating the fundamental interests of the Chinese nation; the Chinese people will absolutely not let that happen!”
Biden reportedly chastised Xi for China’s unfair trade practices and abhorrent human rights behavior, but did not (according to the readout) address the technology ban. For Xi, however, this issue was central, as it bears on the US drive to prevent China from achieving its rightful place in the world. Much of his dialogue at the meeting, according to the readout, was devoted to this issue.
“China-US relations should not be a zero-sum game where one side outcompetes or thrives at the expense of the other,” Xi reportedly told Biden. “Starting a trade war or a technology war, building walls and barriers, and pushing for decoupling and severing supply chains run counter to the principles of market economy and undermine international trade rules…. We oppose politicizing and weaponizing economic and trade ties as well as exchanges in science and technology.”
Clearly, the two presidents succeeded in articulating their primary concerns, but neither addressed the underlying power struggle between their two countries (except in the most oblique fashion), and neither provided a path to reconciliation. Given that trade and technology issues will continue to be viewed in the West as a zero-sum game and that Taiwan will remain a major military flashpoint, there is no reason to assume that the modest achievements announced by Biden and Xi will result in reduced hostilities over the long term.
For China and the United States to genuinely reduce the risk of future conflict, they will have to address the structural issues now dividing them and find ways to resolve, rather than “manage,” their differences. This will take hard work, and a willingness to compromise on tough issues like trade and Taiwan. Increased cooperation on climate change and pandemic prevention can help move things in this direction, but there is no other pathway to lasting peace.