THE XIE ZHENHUA-JOHN KERRY announcement that China and the United States have agreed to set up a joint working group to advance their intent to co-operate on climate mitigation appears to be a prequel of other ‘dialogues’ between the two countries expected to be announced after President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart, Joe Biden, have their long-awaited video ‘summit’ early next week.
Their video call is reportedly scheduled for Tuesday morning (Monday evening in Washington). It was brokered last month at a meeting in Zurich between China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi and US national security adviser Jake Sullivan. Working-level discussions on the details and agenda have been underway since.
It will be only the third direct discussion between the two leaders since Biden took office in January and the first since September. However, Biden often speaks publically about meetings with Xi when he was vice-president. In the ordinary course of events, the two men would have been expected to meet in person at the recent G20 leaders meeting and the COP26 climate summit now drawing to a close in Glasgow.
That it is taking place is an indication that US-China relations, while far from repaired, have at least stopped falling apart, and that, from Beijing’s point of view, the United States has made sufficient effort to ‘correct its errors’ by fulfilling at least some of the demands delivered by Yang in a speech in late January, and in expanded list form at the stormy meeting between top officials from both sides in Alaska in March.
While the Biden administration has moved on some of the specific demands, such as ending the extradition proceedings against Huawei Technology’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, it has not budged significantly on Beijing’s big-picture demands that:
- the United States ceases to look at China as an adversary or even as a strategic competitor;
- Washington restores normal engagement, exchanges, communication and cooperation;
- the United States does not meddle in China’s internal affairs, i.e., Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet;
- Washington co-operates with Beijing’s global initiatives on issues such as climate change, post Covid-19 economic recovery and global public health; and
- the United States stops politicising trade and regarding it as a matter of national security.
Meeting these would have returned Washington’s position to where it was prior to the Trump administration. That is not going to happen.
ff anything, the Biden administration is continuing its predecessor’s policies towards Beijing, albeit sometimes passively, by just letting processes already in train when it took office run their course.
His administration is divided internally over how hard it should press China. These divisions cross many fault lines within the president’s Democratic party, not just between human rights and trade and investment issues, but also between human rights and climate mitigation, and defence spending and diplomacy. These are divisions that will not be easily bridged.
Expectations for the outcome of the meeting are accordingly low. Both leaders have domestic concerns that mean they both need to manage the competition between the two countries to avoid undue shocks or surprises but to do so in a way that puts an upbeat spin on the stalemate in so many areas without sounding weak to domestic and global audiences.