WHAT TURNS A video call between two presidents into a summit meeting, beyond the label that gets slapped on it?
We may find out later this year now a ‘virtual bilateral meeting’ between President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden has been agreed in principle during a meeting in Switzerland between Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, and US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.
Biden had pushed for an in-person meeting when he talked to Xi on the phone earlier this year. Xi, who has not travelled outside China since before the Covid-19 pandemic started, demurred.
The virtual compromise appears to reward Biden’s efforts to restore bilateral relations to a less confrontational posture, although he has not strayed far from the tough line on China taken by his predecessor.
However, the US president has softened the tone and made several de-escalatory gestures, most publically dropping an extradition request for Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou.
The Switzerland meeting appears to have been more constructive than one in Alaska in March involving the two officials, Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his US counterpart, Antony Blinken. That quickly degenerated into a shouting match.
This time around, while Yang repeated Beijing’s demand that Washington respects China’s sovereignty, security and development interests and Sullivan raised the US’ standing concerns about Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan, there was at least discussion, even if conducted in terms diplomats describe as ‘candid’.
That is still far from an improvement in relations. Beijing still holds to its line that it is Washington’s responsibility to get the relationship back on track as it is US policies that have derailed it.
Yet, agreement to a set-piece meeting, albeit virtual, indicates a desire on the part of both leaders for relations not to deteriorate further, which would not serve the interest of either leader as they cope with significant domestic challenges.