Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Joe Biden and Xi Jinping’s virtual meeting comes as US-China tensions mount

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The agenda includes climate change, human rights, trade, arms control and fears of a military confrontation in the western Pacific

Nobody likes to stay in the office long for a Zoom call. But Joe Biden can hardly avoid his first virtual meeting this evening with Chinese President Xi Jinping. On the agenda: a few little things – climate change, human rights, trade, arms control and rising military tensions in the western Pacific. Given the variety and severity of the problems dividing the US and China, the pessimism surrounding the encounter is understandable.

Officials in Washington and Beijing undoubtedly placed their hopes on an open but civil exchange between the leaders of the two superpowers, in which they agreed to disagree for the time being and to commit to regular dialogue – and to avoid disaster.

Now is certainly a time for calm and diplomacy as tensions between the US and China mount alarmingly.

Xi may not be in the mood to hack words. Last week he was only the third Chinese communist leader to issue a “historical resolution” and join Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping to record his own version of recent Chinese history. Spurred on by his rise, Xi appears determined to enforce China’s claim on Taiwan. According to Chinese state media, he is ready to warn Biden to “step down” on the Taiwan issue.

The strange, tiresome business of Taiwan in which China declares Taiwan its own; Taiwan declares itself a sovereign state; America tacitly promises to defend its independence; and all parties pretend that the points of view are compatible has broken new ground in recent months. This is mainly due to Biden blurting out with comments that the US is ready to defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion despite an unspoken protocol.

Building a US-led resistance to Chinese power in the western Pacific and Beijing’s rapid progress in developing hypersonic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads is also a cause for concern.

When Biden succeeded in removing Donald Trump from the White House twelve months ago, Beijing likely looked forward to a new, sunnier period in US-China relations. An unpredictable, freaky US administration had been replaced by a seasoned statesmen; Xi and Biden knew each other well.

But Beijing may have hoped for too much. Concerned about China’s human rights violations, it was hardly surprising that the Biden government viewed Beijing’s sinister Belt and Road initiative, the export of espionage technology and the resumption of state-sponsored cyber theft of intellectual property.

There are several reasons for optimism. The surprising joint statement by Washington and Beijing at COP26 that the world’s two largest carbon emitters would work together to reduce methane emissions, protect forests and reduce coal consumption showed that collaboration is possible.

But diplomatic breakthroughs are not in sight.

After all, the leaders talk – and do not shout or exchange insults. We can hope this is a start.

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