THE CHUMMY XI-BIDEN video summit on Tuesday morning (Monday evening US time) softens the tone of the China-US relationship but does not much change the substance.
Given the fractious nature of the bilateral relationship of late, that is a significant change and reflects both sides’ wish — and need — not to let it get further out of hand. In that, the video meeting represented a welcome step back from the risk of unwanted ‘hot’ conflict.
Xi likened the relationship to two giant ocean-going ships that needed a steady hand on the tiller to avoid a collision.
However, he also repeated the long-standing demands that Washington treat Beijing as an equal on the world stage, stop impeding its development, stop treating trade as a national security issue and not interfere in China’s internal affairs, notably Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
‘[Xi] highlighted mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation as three principles in developing China-U.S. relations in the new era’, according to state media.
Sticking to that agenda suggests that Xi thinks China is getting results with it, and that the United States is changing tack, if not necessarily course.
He will need to ensure that perception inside China is sustained in the run-up to next year’s party congress, but also make sure that the narrative of structural US decline that has taken wide hold does not threaten the stable management of the bilateral relationship. That is a necessary backdrop if he is to deal with the other pressing issues confronting China’s development.
The readouts from both sides on Taiwan will be scrutinised for nuance.
The US side said Biden affirmed the ‘One-China policy’ but ‘strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.
Xi blamed deteriorating relations across the Straits on ‘repeated attempts by the Taiwan authorities to look for US support for their independence agenda as well as the intention of some Americans to use Taiwan to contain China.’
Xi said China would be patient over reunification but warned that it would be compelled to take ‘resolute measures’, should the ‘separatist forces for “Taiwan independence” provoke us, force our hands or even cross the red line’.
Both leaders were talking as much to their domestic constituencies as to each other, as the human rights issues highlighted by Biden are all those on which Xi will not make concessions.
However, by freezing conflict on them, both leaders can appear principled while easing relations in other areas, notably through cooperation on climate issues and some compromises over trade and investment.
We have already seen some working-level meetings between officials and are likely to see more following the Xi-Biden video meeting.