Xi-Biden summit : That the US wants intense competition with China was said in so many words by White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki when she briefed reporters about the upcoming summit between US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Given the flux in bilateral ties, the gesture appears to be a deceptive genuflection by Washington which has fought off allegations of a “Thucydides’ Trap” by Beijing amid rising tensions between the largest economy and the most populous country.
Xi, who according to state media recently chaired a meeting to seek non-Communist parties’ views on its achievements and experience, is possibly under the spotlight even inside his own country as tensions over Taiwan roil the straits, the water body strategically positioned to divide the mainland with the island — which could become a geopolitical tinderbox.
Biden and Xi will meet virtually and the video meeting does not take away from the importance of the event that will have the world, including the European Union and China’s south Asian neighbours, watching with some trepidation.
Dr. Steven Wright, Associate Professor and Associate Dean at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences in Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Doha says when leaders from the two superpowers meet it is always of strategic significance.
“Dialogue helps ease tensions through mutual understanding regardless of whether an agreement has been reached. Ties have problematic issues, but engagement often leads to concessions and an easing of tensions,” he said.
Greek historian Thucydides introduced the concept of “Thucydides’ Trap” in which one great power becomes a threat to another, resulting most likely in war. The rise of Greek state Athens made Sparta uneasy, this led to War, says Dr Wright.
This would be Biden’s first meeting with Xi, whose stand on Taiwan is shared by the nation of about 1.5 billion.
The Chinese leader has made the reunification of Taiwan the leitmotif of his presidency, asking Democratic Progressive Party on the island authorities to bend or break.
In a three-hour marathon speech punctuated by applause, Xi said at the opening of the 19th National Congress of the CPC at the Great Hall of the People in 2017, “We must uphold the one-China principle and the 1992 consensus, and promote the peaceful development of cross-Straits relations.”
“Blood is thicker than water. People on both sides of the Taiwan Straits are brothers and sisters; we share the bond of kinship,” Xi added.
The summit comes after an October meeting between Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser and Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee and a diplomatic heavyweight.
Can the two nations often dubbed the enfants terrible by the green brigade, unite over the environment as they have just come out of a vaunted COP26 in Glasgow where Xi was absent.
Both countries have issued a surprise joint declaration during COP-26 showing their commitment to fighting climate change. “This is a positive outcome and shows that there is a will for cooperation on shared interests. The challenge is to achieve a mutual understanding in other areas,” says Dr Wright.
The agreement, he said, they need to reach is one on the principle that although differences will continue to exist, an actual confrontation must be avoided by both sides.
Foreign policy observers say while Trump would have approached the issue of Taiwan as a populist playing to his base, Biden is likely to approach it more strategically.
The challenge for Biden is trying to reconcile a principled stand against the strategic need to lower tensions and achieve a principled understanding on how to avoid an actual conflict situation.
Taiwan and the South China Sea are strategic geopolitical issues that would dominate talks. This doesn’t mean trade, cyberthreats and human rights will get a short shrift.
While people in the US and China will wake up to yellow and red foliage on a cold November morning, the world will watch if Biden and Xi are able to shrug off more than Monday morning blues.