Navigating Diplomacy: US and China Seek Common Ground in Xi-Biden Summit

Anil Trigunayat

One thing is clear from the separately issued Chinese and the US statements that the two heads of state had a candid conversation and in-depth exchange of views on strategic and overarching issues critical to the direction of Sino-US relations and major issues affecting world peace and development.

Finally, on November 15, the much hyped and awaited meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden happened at Filoli Estate, 40 kms away in the outskirts of San Francisco and on the sidelines of the APEC Summit.  Reports indicated that bonhomie and happy protocol was pretty evident as Biden received Xi and saw him off after the four hour interaction and luncheon. The last one was in Bali on the sidelines of G20 in 2022 nearly a year back.

Since their last meeting the relations had hit a new low with the Americans shooting down of the Chinese spy balloon that straddled over the US airspace with glee and impunity for days before the one eye of the five eyes woke up. This led to cancellation of Blinken’s visit to Beijing. Later, the now disappeared Chinese Defence Minister refused to meet Lloyd Austin on the sidelines of Shangri LA dialogue giving an overt rebuff to the Americans. 

The Sino-US rivalry for the numero uno spot in the global discourse is well known as their ideological contests span across geographies. But the Chinese economy and their gigantic projects like the BRI have been facing headwinds and the Americans and the Europeans are trying to create obstacles to their access to technology 5G/6G and microchips and semiconductors temporarily. Trade and IPR issues further became more stringent. But given the dependencies on China from manufacturing to minerals the West was forced to downgrade its much hyped policy of ‘De-coupling’ to ‘De-risking ‘ so as to keep the global supply chains flowing. 

The Current Scenario

Moreover, with the three black swan events of Covid pandemic, Russia-Ukraine War and now the West Asian crisis  and given their deleterious impact on global security, stability and economy the Americans could ill afford to shun China and allow it to overtly support the opposite sides. US’s distraction to other theatres from the Indo-Pacific required a little leeway of comfort from the snorting dragon. Hence, the spate of American visits and several CBMs (confidence building measures) in the last few months leading to a temporary truce and eventually this Summit in the G2 format were aimed at finding some modus vivendi in the interim. 

The differences are so stark on key issues and given the very nature of the world order each side wishes to see and craft it is only a matter of time before the arsenal of wolf warrior Diplomacy on both sides entertains and scares the world yet again. The critical issues on both sides are far too complex that their strategic choices are unlikely to lead to an entente for longer durations even if no direct conflict is envisaged. Geopolitical and geoeconomic contestations between the two will define and dictate the contours of futuristic competition across geographies and interests. 

Biden in the presser immediately after the meeting calling Xi -the dictator and China calling it ‘irresponsible‘ gives away the bandage that may have been put during the Summit. Although there is a long list of fundamental differences between the two competing powers, even some sort of a minimalist understanding is a good sign in the interim since hegemonism is the eventual fundamental trait of superpowers. And it is in this context that the Summit outcomes may be seen.

One redline is of course the reunification of Taiwan by peaceful means and /or by any means where Xi has been very clear and candid in asking the US to adhere to one China policy and not support the independence of Taiwan which could precipitate the use of force for annexing it to the mainland even if it would not sound good to economic reason. 

The 2024 elections in Taiwan are also critical in which Biden would expect China not to intercede. In fact Taiwan holds the key to the peace in the Indo-Pacific.  Xi has denied that he had fixed any date in 2027 or so for annexation. But as he wishes to leave a legacy would he wait till 2049 is the big question!

From the separately issued Statements one thing is clear that the two heads of state had a candid conversation and in-depth exchange of views on strategic and overarching issues  critical to the direction of Sino-US relations and major issues affecting world peace and development. They also agreed that the two nations have divergent views of evolution of the new world order and have two ways out either to cooperate to meet global challenges or indulge in confrontation. 

For the time being modus Vivendi is preferable. They can not turn their backs on each other which implies that the two sides have reverted to the ‘G2” format to deal with global issues and developments as USA vowed to protect its Indo-Pacific partners while adhering to a Free and Open (FoIP) and rule-based Indo-Pacific. 

They have understood that effort to remodel the other in a preferred direction is naïve and even undesirable and infructuous. Xi seems to believe that instead of indulging in a zero-sum mentality the world is big enough to accommodate both thereby asserting his equality with the USA in international discourse. Xi has this time expanded his quest for accommodation from the Indo-Pacific to the big broad world.

Bilateral Relations with the US

Xi also proposed a five pillar approach for the bilateral relations with the USA which included joint development of right perceptions; Joint management of disagreements; jointly advance beneficial cooperation; jointly shoulder global responsibilities; and jointly promote people to people exchanges. Chinese seems to have some quirky affliction with number five. Many years ago they had agreed to principles of Pancasila with India which they dispensed with before the ink was dry. 

How would the US or for that matter China be able to bring about convergences on key issues remains to be seen. Meanwhile some agreements and understanding on establishing or resuming communications military to military communications as well as various maritime and corresponding theatre commands to avoid accidents, drug and narcotics, market access issues, Climate change, AI, tech and innovation barriers and sanctions by the West have been reached as Biden assured that two economies are mutually dependent and it does not seek to contain or suppress China’s development or to decouple with China.

In the Russia-Ukraine war and Israel-Hamas conflict also the two sides retained their differing perceptions and management techniques agreeing to disagree.

Both sides called the Filoli Estate dialogue comprehensive, candid and constructive which means they spoke their minds but eventually how things will move between the two global competitors looking for two very different systems and world orders will keep the curiosity alive and the world on tenterhooks.

Anil Trigunayat, is a former Indian Ambassador to Jordan, Libya and Malta, and currently heads the West Asia Experts Group at Vivekananda International Foundation.

The article was first published in CNBC TV 18 as World View| Xi-Biden Summit — easing of hostility or moving to a friendly understanding on November 20, 2023.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

Read more at IMPRI: 

Power of Multilateralism

Silent Diplomacy: The Significance of a Bark-Free Biden-Xi Meeting for Bilateral Ties

Acknowledgement: This article was posted by Aasthaba Jadeja , a researcher at IMPRI.