The G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, is a microcosm of strained international cooperation in dire times. The central attraction of the summit was a highly scripted meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping. The bilateral meeting can be best described as a “squabble with smiles”. The zeitgeist of the microcosm at the Mulia Hotel in Bali – where Biden and Xi met – is the ‘bipolar world order’ moment.
The meeting lasted over three hours and included discussions about the most challenging areas of the US-China relationship. There was much riding on the ‘personal relationship’ Biden has with Xi – going back 11 years – to revive a difficult relationship.
But Xi may have won a propaganda victory at home by showing his people that Beijing isn’t isolated and seeks dialogue.
The hashtag “Chinese and US presidents meet in Bali” was briefly the number one trend on the Chinese social media platform Weibo and was viewed over 310 million times. On the Chinese search engine Baidu, the search term “A 10-minute video to watch of the meeting between Chinese and US leaders in Bali” was the number one trend, capturing the importance of the meeting for Xi.
Background scenes reveal more
It may seem absurd to many, but Xi Jinping rarely appears in major photo-ops published on leading social media platforms such as WeChat and Weibo. The point can be proven by searching “Zhuxi Xi Jinping” (主席习近平) on Sina Weibo, WeChat or Bilibili, which will turn up a limited number of searches about Xi.
Marking an exception, the Chinese censors allowed images of Xi smiling and shaking hands with Biden – which People’s Daily on Weibo also shared. Given the significance of the meeting with Biden in Bali – at this juncture – the handshake offered a propaganda victory for Xi.
In Bali, the US and China tried to revive a stale marriage and found themselves talking about their ‘core interests’ instead. Biden and Xi were seen repeating the same talking points about fast slipping ‘common ground’ in a highly choreographed handshake.
The sheer scale of the discord is captured by an incident at the summit’s sidelines. An alleged Chinese official pulled news producers from the back when they asked if Biden would talk about human rights with Xi.
“Instantly a man from the Chinese side…..yanked the producer backwards by the backpack. She lost balance without falling and was pushed toward the door,” according to an account by The White House reporters who saw the alleged incident.
Biden summarised his meeting with Xi as “very blunt with one another”.
But there was little beyond the high stake optics of the choreographed handshake.
“China continues to pursue an independent foreign policy of peace firmly, always decides its position and attitude based on the merits of the matter itself, advocates dialogue and consultation, peaceful settlement of disputes, deepens and expands global partnership, and safeguards the UN-centered international system and international law based on the international order, and promote the building of a community with a shared future for mankind,” Xi said during the meeting with Biden.
Xi took a direct swipe at Biden’s China policy while obliquely alluding to his discomfort with the Quad Security Dialogue and other such mechanisms the US uses to challenge China.
In one instance, Xi’s comments were even more pointed.
“No one should engage in beggar-thy-neighbor practices, building ‘a small yard with high fences,’ or creating closed and exclusive clubs,” said Xi during his address at the G20.
The US and China competition can be better understood through game theory. Both sides are making moves with the fundamental assumption that the other side will take the best shot at blunting the opposing side’s advantage –the two sides are acting in an environment full of mistrust. Hence, the pithy repetition of diplomatic talking points may appear absurd but essential to maintain a semblance of stability.
Xi’s comment about ‘technological wars’ captures his deep frustration over the US’s targeted actions against Huawei and the semiconductor industry as well as his inability to become self-reliant in the primary innovations.
President Biden recently announced the measures to choke China’s access to semiconductor technology – well surpassing any measures taken by former President Donald Trump.
“When President Biden took office, he promised to abandon Trump’s ‘if you don’t support us, you are against us’ line toward China. Instead, he is now forcing American partners to choose sides in a deepening global tech standoff,” said an op-ed in Chinese published by Global Times.
Chinese officials see how the limited scope of dialling down the tensions in previously apolitical arenas such as semiconductor technology have become politicised. Chinese state media have blamed the US for ‘acting like a bully’ with the most stringent semiconductor measures announced by Biden.
“But with Biden saying coming into the meeting that ‘I know I’m coming in stronger’ — after his party’s performance in the midterm elections, the window of opportunity is likely to be short to get things moving in the right direction before old habits set in again. The longer Washington delays in adjusting its China policy, the higher the stakes will be in its competitive gamble”, said China Daily in an English editorial without a byline.
Blunting each other’s strengths
The US and China are trying to blunt each other’s geopolitical advantages, and so-called bottom lines, or fundamental interests, are beginning to fade. The blunting strategy was Beijing’s preferred tool over the years, and Washington mimics some of it.
Despite the underlying tension, Biden tried to reassure Xi by telling him Washington will not interfere in Beijing’s core interests, such as not supporting ‘Taiwan’s independence’.
“The United States respects China’s system, does not seek to change China’s system, does not seek a ‘new Cold War’, does not seek to oppose China by strengthening alliances, does not support ‘Taiwan independence’, and does not support ‘two Chinas’ and ‘one China, one Taiwan’,” Biden was quoted by the Chinese state media.
But it was immediately unclear if Biden made the exact comments about not supporting ‘Taiwan independence’ as quoted by Chinese state media in Chinese and English readouts. This won’t be the first time Biden was misquoted to win a propaganda victory at home.
Washington’s strategy ahead of the meeting with Xi was poorly coordinated. US officials tried to create a comfortable environment for the Chinese side under which they might be willing to make some compromises at the high-stakes meeting.
“I think there is undeniably a discomfort in Beijing about what we’ve seen in terms of reckless rhetoric and activity on the part of Russia,” said a US official who asked not to be identified.
The Wall Street Journal reported that a US official cited comments by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang made during the ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh. But what Chinese officials may say in private is contradicted by the foreign ministry’s public posture, which seeks to assure the world about the stability of China-Russia relations.
Analysts should be mindful that China didn’t offer a single official narrative on the Russia-Ukraine, and therefore, citing one comment to capture Zhongnanhai’s long-term view on relations with Moscow is a pitfall we should avoid. But there is no doubt that Beijing is uneasy with the Russian army’s dismal performance in Ukraine.
And the Chinese officials responded to leaks by US officials by leaking their side of the story ahead of the Bali show-off.
According to a Chinese official quoted by Financial Times, “Putin didn’t tell Xi the truth” about his plan for the Ukraine war when they met in Beijing in February. The leaks from the Chinese side suggest that some in Beijing might be willing to see US ‘eye to eye’ on the Russia-Ukraine war.
Besides meeting Biden, Xi held bilateral meetings with French President Emmanuel Macron and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, during which both leaders pressed Xi to use his influence to end the war in Ukraine.
As the meeting concluded, Biden and Xi asked their officials to carry forward their discussion in Bali. The buck will again stop with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and his Chinese counterpart, likely to be Wang Yi, to implement the limited consensus the two sides agreed upon in Bali.
The primary takeaway from the Bali summit was that though the US and China may avoid confrontation in the short term, they won’t stop blunting each other’s strengths.
The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist, currently pursuing an MSc in international politics with a focus on China from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)