The first virtual live summit between US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping has sparked controversy over the possibility of resolving disputes between the world’s current superpowers. Amid rising political, military, and economic tensions between both countries, the summit addressed several key issues, such as Taiwan, human rights, and trade relations. Despite a lengthy conversation between both presidents, nothing has significantly changed the “silent strife” between the two nations. This summit, the third round of talks between Biden and Xi since the former’s inauguration in January, also revealed trends towards building a sustainable mechanism for dialogue. Against this backdrop, disputes between both parties could be summarized as follows:
1. Conflicting US and American Interests in Taiwan: American concerns are mounting over China’s diplomatic and economic pressures on Taiwan. Meanwhile, China warns against US support for Taiwan’s independence, which Beijing considers as part of its mainland. The talks aimed at reducing the risks of a strategic clash between the two countries and maintaining self-discipline. Biden’s explicit support for Taiwan in the case of a Chinese attack against it became a point of increasing tension between both countries, as well as course change from the US’s longstanding, strategically ambiguous position on the issue. In separate statements after the talks, Xi described US support for Taiwan as “playing with fire,” and warned against dividing the world into allies and blocs, thereby fueling potential conflicts.
2. Promoting Joint Efforts to Fight Global Challenges: The talks demonstrated the fact that good Sino-American relations are essential to fighting global challenges such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. This follows a joint declaration by the two countries at the Conference of the Parties (COP) 26 in Glasgow, UK committing to combat climate change. During this meeting, a range of other shared interests were also discussed, such as cyber security and nuclear proliferation.
Biden highlighted that both countries are responsible for ensuring that competition will not turn into an all-out war. The two presidents reiterated their responsibility towards the world’s future by avoiding any potential conflict. Describing Biden as an old friend, Xi said that the two parties have to enhance communications and cooperation to resolve these several pressing issues, noting the effect that their bilateral relations have on the entire world. Biden followed this remark by stating that both countries should avoid turning their bilateral relations into an open conflict.
The Chinese President also emphasized the importance of strengthening collaboration and communications between both countries as the world’s two largest economies and permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC).
“We have always communicated with one another very honestly and candidly. We never walk away wondering what the other man is thinking,” said Biden.
“China and the United States need to increase communication and cooperation,” said Xi.
3. American Concerns Over Chinese Internal and Foreign Policies: Biden echoed his concerns over human rights violations in China and his commitment to protect American industries and labor from China’s unfair economic and commercial practices. Biden ratcheted up tensions as he came into office in January, as he quickly criticized Beijing’s human rights violation against the Uyghur in northwestern China, crackdown on Hong Kong protestors, and military aggression against Taiwan. In response, Xi struck back against what he perceives as the White House’s intervention in domestic Chinese affairs.
4. Overcoming Domestic Chinese and American Challenges: As tensions rise between the US and China, both countries’ presidents are also facing their own rising domestic challenges. In the US, Biden’s popularity has dropped in polls amid concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, inflation, and supply chain issues. Meanwhile, Xi is confronting a resurgence of COVID-19, an energy shortage, and a looming housing crisis with potential impact on global markets. “Right now, both China and the United States are at critical stages of development, and humanity lives in a global village, and we face multiple challenges together,” said Xi during the talks.
5. Restructuring the Sino-American Framework: Biden affirmed the need for stable and logical relations between the US and China. He also said that both should respect each other to achieve a positive impact. He then emphasized that the US will always stand up for its values in accordance with international norms.
“We need to establish some commonsense guardrails, to be clear and honest where we disagree, and work together where our interests intersect, especially on vital global issues like climate change. None of this is a favor to either of our countries – what we do for one another – but it’s just responsible world leadership,” added Biden.
6. Dealing with COVID-19: Biden stressed the importance of transparency in avoiding new outbreaks in the future, referring to China’s reluctance to conduct an international investigation to trace the origins of COVID-19. This comes amid conflicting international reports and disagreement within the intelligence community regarding the virus’ origin. Four intelligence agencies said they have low confidence that the disease originated from an infected animal or a relevant virus. One agency stated that it has moderate confidence that the first human COVID-19 infection likely resulted from an accident during an experiment at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
7. Ensuring Freedom of Navigation and Safe Flights: Biden addressed the importance of the free and open zone of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. He expressed to Xi the US’s willingness to fulfil its security commitments in the region. He also reiterated the importance of free navigation and safe flights for the region’s prosperity.
8- Discussing Climate Change, Energy, and Labor Rights: The two presidents discussed the existential climate crisis and the pivotal role both countries play in this issue. They also discussed the importance of undertaking measures to address global energy supplies, as well as protecting labor and American industries from China’s unfair commercial and economic practices. In this context, Xi called for respecting the social orders and development tracks of both China and the US, while also preserving each other’s substantial interests and protecting each country’s right to development.
In conclusion, this virtual meeting came at a time of ever-growing discord between Washington and Beijing as each country defends its views on Taiwan, commerce, and human rights. Just as no one had expected many concrete results, the three and a half hour meeting concluded without reaching an agreement. Moreover, there were no tangible initiatives, agreements, or even an attempt to publish a joint statement from the onset of the meeting. Be that as it may, the summit was still important, as each party shared its views and affirmed their aversion of conflict. In the end, however, the summit avoided addressing some of the more sensitive issues, including visas, invitations to the Winter Olympics in Beijing, and the US military response in case China attacked Taiwan.