Restoring some semblance of normalcy to Sino-America relations

November 15, 2022 09:28
U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 leaders' summit in Bali, Indonesia. Photo: Reuters

There is a bitter irony to the fact that what could well have turned out to be the most pivotal partnership in the 21st century – the core pillars that would undergird the world’s response to existential risks and catastrophes – has turned out to be amongst the most turbulent.

Sino-American relations have reached nadir after nadir. From blockades through the Chips Act and targeted financial decoupling and highly contentious gestures and rhetoric from Washington over matters Beijing perceives to be dear to its national interests, it is clear that America has had little appetite over the past five years for a ‘peaceful coexistence’ with China.

Much of such antagonism and scepticism is reciprocated by China, which has doubled down on calls for self-sufficiency, effectively isolated itself from the rest of the world through stringent public health measures, and a surge in unflinching hyper-nationalism.

It would be easy – but equally pollyannish – to call for both US and China to ‘get along’. After all, why can’t they just, literally, get along, make friends, and the world would be kumbaya?

The reality is a tad more complex than that. China’s comprehensive rise – but also increasing uncertainty over its foreign policy – has led to Washington adopting a rhetorical and perceptual pivot in its approach to China: rendering the second largest economy in the world a prospective challenger, even threat, to the interests that America espouses. The vehement retaliation by American actors, in turn, has drawn the ire and strengthened the convictions amongst Chinese policymakers and bureaucrats that the US was less than interested in accommodating the rise of a country that could potentially (though with many more years to come) put an end to the unipolar America-led world order that has held since the end of the 1980s.

All in all, there are aplenty reasons for both sides to feel aggrieved.

It was against this backdrop, then, that Presidents Xi and Biden met in Bali earlier this week. In a true testament to the prowess of modern technology, press, and transparency of coverage, Biden – in the press conference immediately afterwards – asked his aide the question, “How many hours did we spend in the meeting again? It was… three, three and a half hours.”

Three and a half hours were spent between Xi and Biden, in which a wide range of issues were explored – ranging from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the prospects of hot war and conflict over the Taiwan Straits, Beijing’s and Washington’s understanding of national and territorial baselines, the designing of a practicable modus vivendi for bilateral relations going forward.

Whilst the meeting certainly did not yield substantial, practicable outcomes (at least, none as far as I am aware), one thing is clear – it injected a level of human(ised) normalcy to bilateral relations that crucially paves the way for a degree of normalisation; a halting of sorts to the otherwise precipitous downwards spiral in relations. There was a clear sense that both countries’ leaders wanted to work together – and that within each other’s worldview there was at least some effort of sorts to pay heed to the other’s right to existence and growth. More importantly, this was the first face-to-face meeting between Biden and Xi, after over three years.

On issues concerning China’s internal sovereignty, the baselines were laid bare and clear by Beijing, with a degree of reciprocation from Washington – though the extent to which the Capitol, especially with a House that could slip into Republican control, would be willing to entertain a level of restraint over such matters, remains to be seen. On matters concerning managing costs of living, the ongoing fuel and food crisis, and nuclear escalation in Ukraine, Washington seemed to have succeeded in extracting an olive branch of sorts from China – though it remains to be seen how the promises of guardrailing against nuclear escalation would be put into place.

The Chinese delegation was adamant that on matters it dubbed to be ‘domestic’ and ‘internal’ in nature, it would not give in; the same level of fortitude and determination was, if not substantively, rhetorically shared by the American delegation on matters it considered to be ‘fundamental’.

As I put it in private to a few friends of mine, I would see this meeting as less of an attempt to construct a more positive future, as an attempt to outline and delineate clearly where the most vitriolic confrontations between America and China should be directed, and where the two countries could potentially find room to engage in further dialogue down the line – provided that concessions are made by both parties. Yet short of significant gestures and moves that connote a responsiveness towards this proposition, I genuinely do not see any immediate or substantial improvement in bilateral relations. It doesn’t help, too, that the ‘Demonise China’ and ‘Rally against the West’ cards have been elaborately deployed in the mid-terms and public discourse in China, respectively. So to those hoping that Sino-American ‘friendship’ is coming back – as a dove and a former optimist, I’d say,

“Don’t count your chickens before they hatch – or, shall I say, de-freeze.”

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Assistant Professor, HKU