When Joe speaks to Xi

The Washington DC-Beijing rivalry is structural. The conversation between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping did not change that
President Joe Biden meets virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Washington, November 15, 2021 (AP)
President Joe Biden meets virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Washington, November 15, 2021 (AP)
Updated on Nov 17, 2021 11:46 AM IST
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ByHT Editorial

United States (US) President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping (who is also the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and chairman of the Central Military Commission — two designations which are probably better descriptors of his power) had their first virtual meeting on Monday. The conversation comes soon after the two countries issued a joint statement at Glasgow on climate. And it is happening in the wake of US businesses with interests in China lobbying to defuse tensions between the two sides. All of this has given rise to a perception that after a period where diplomacy took a backseat, the gloves were off, and American and Chinese policymakers engaged in their most public confrontation in the last three decades, if not longer, a period of detente is on the horizon.

Detente it may well be, but cordiality and friendship it won’t. The impulse for a conversation, as US policymakers repeatedly highlighted, was to ensure that competition did not veer towards conflict, whether intended or unintended. This is particularly true with regard to Taiwan as well as the larger strategic equilibrium, especially in the nuclear domain. And if the conversation helps install some “common sense guardrails”, as Mr Biden said, it is good for all sides, including India. Delhi doesn’t want to see Washington and Beijing make up, but neither is an all out conflagration in Asia in Delhi’s interests.

Indeed, the conversation has only made it more clear that the rivalry between the two sides — as realists have long argued — is structural. The US emphasised the differences on values, trade, regional security and the Indo-Pacific. The fact that a majority of those who attended the meeting from the American side were from the National Security Council, which has a clear sense of the strategic challenge posed by China, means that Washington won’t make any concessions easily. The domestic political imperative — where being seen as soft on China in an election year could well prove costly for the Democrats, already on weak ground at home — will also mean status quo on policy. And then factor in the Biden administration’s only real foreign policy success — of cementing ties with allies and partners, especially through Quad, where the subtext is ensuring that Chinese ambitions find an effective counter. All of this means that Mr Biden and Mr Xi may have spoken to each other, but the fundamentals haven’t changed. This suits India.

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Sunday, December 05, 2021