The US administration officials are citing the same three factors for a possible Biden-Xi summit in coming October as they were for the 3-hour long Biden-Putin sit-down last month in Switzerland. If so, then why is it that Biden chose to first summit with the Russian “killer” and not with the “thug” in Beijing? Because as President Biden sees it, the stakes are far higher with Xi. Analysts in Washington are telling us, to the White House, Russia is a mere “irritation,” but Beijing has become a serious existential threat.
In recent weeks, two of Biden’s top foreign policy “troika” have publicly stated, with Biden-Putin summit in the rearview the President is gearing up for a higher-stakes summit encounter: with the Chinese President Xi Jinping. Jake Sullivan and Kurt Campbell on more than one occasion in recent weeks have indicated a possible Biden-Xi sit-down at the G20 summit in Rome in October-end, which both the leaders are expected to attend. If the sit-down does take place, questions will still be asked why a Biden-Xi summit, being described as the “most consequential foreign policy move” of the Biden presidency, did not precede an inconsequential Biden-Putin meet?
Indeed, after four disastrous Trump years for China, Beijing has been long hoping that Biden in the White House would mean less tumult in the US-China relations. However, President Biden’s tougher stance on China is not something Beijing’s top diplomats in-charge of implementing the country’s US had bargained for. Even President Xi himself, upon whom the CPC politburo has bestowed all decision-making powers to “manage” China’s relations with the United States, has been clueless as to why Biden’s America is continuing to keep China on the defensive, and for how long? But Xi Jinping it seems, thanks to Biden’s “less than satisfying” European tour, is now suddenly optimistic of a one-to-one meeting with Biden on the cards.
As was expected, Biden’s maiden foreign tour has been evaluated a success or failure based on mostly subjective assessments, ie, determined more by one’s geographical location and geopolitical worldview. Yet despite claims of Biden’s European tour being an outright success by some, it is nonetheless true amid mixed reactions and mismatched expectations, the two sides (ie, The US and the EU) were left with unanswered questions: how to forge “alliance of Western democracies” against authoritarian rivals? How to “reinvigorate the liberal democratic model”? How to arrive at a consensus about how to deal with China? According to Pierre Vimont, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, in spite of the joint statement issued at the end of the EU-US summit, “a more than visible shortcoming was on the issue of long-term future relationship with China.”
Not particularly enamored by the slogan “America is back,” Europe’s focus seemed to be on getting from the Chinese leaders a clear commitment to abide by a genuine rules-based international order, particularly in trade matters where Europe wants to impose an improved level playing field. Just as a Moscow-based security affairs analyst recently commented: “Most EU countries do not want to fight China. They believe America is imposing China and Europe on each other as ‘unwanted enemies.’ For they also believe, unlike China and America, Europe’s ambitions are regional and not global.”
Speaking of the summit diplomacy, especially when the US presidents are to hold sit-downs with an adversary, apparently, internal negotiations within the administration is viewed as a tougher road. For example, even though the White House tried to sell the notion that President Xi was to be blamed for “souring the Trump-Kim Jung Un” second meeting, the truth is the Trump administration was never prepared to seriously discuss any issue with the North Korean leader. Besides, national security advisor John Bolton, the formidable chairman of Trump’s new “war cabinet” was never agreeable to the idea of US-North Korean diplomacy. As Melvin Goodman, a former CIA analyst who is now a professor of government at the John Hopkins University explained, “the Trump-Kim summit was a failure before starting.” Goodman cites yet another example, “one of President John F. Kennedy’s greatest successes was disciplining the Pentagon in 1963 in order to negotiate the Partial Test Ban Treaty.”
That diplomacy was not his cup of tea, manifested early on in Trump’s choice of both his secretaries of state, Tillerson and Pompeo, respectively. According to reports, scores of career officials and staffers working in the Harry Truman Building, are feeling relieved at the exit of Mike Pompeo and are hoping Antony Blinken can revitalize American diplomacy. In the words of 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner The New Yorker contributing editor Ronan Farrow, “Pompeo’s chaotic tenure, and that of his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, left deep institutional and cultural scars that continue to impede American diplomatic efforts around the world.”
Diplomacy, besides being defined as subtle art, we are told is also seen as a practitioner’s art. In sharp contrast to his predecessor, President Biden is described by many as a conscious leader. This perhaps explains why Biden is moving slowly in setting up a summit meeting with Xi. As David Feith, former deputy assistant secretary of state East Asia and Pacific Affairs under Trump recently observed: “It is significant that President Biden has strongly signaled to his own administration and other governments that he wants to prioritize China competition in US policy and US diplomacy.” (Emphasis added).
On the other hand, as mentioned above, Beijing has let it be known “it was pleasantly surprised” on hearing reports of Biden finally “making sense” in his China policy. As Cao Xin, a Beijing-based influential IR expert wrote in his weekly column in ftchinese.com, “Last week, Kurt Campbell, the US Coordinator for the Asia-Pacific made two headlines grabbing statements. First, the United States stands by ‘One China Policy’ and does not recognize Taiwan as an independent country. Second, I expect the two leaders to establish contact with each other soon.” Welcoming the news that President Biden has signaled to his own administration to prioritize a sit-down with president Xi, Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for China’s embassy in Washington said, “China and the United States have maintained communication on dialogues and exchanges at all levels.”
In this above context, China’s vice president Wang Qishan has become the highest ranking Chinese official to openly convey that Beijing is willing to go the extra mile to sit down with Washington for a dialogue to manage differences. Wang Qishan was speaking at an event last week in Beijing celebrating the 50th anniversary of the US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s historic visit to China. “China-US bilateral ties are at a critical point. The two countries should respect each other’s sovereignty, security, and development interests. The US strategy towards China should avoid misguidance and miscalculation,” Wang said.
The 98-year old Kissinger attended the event through a video call and said, “Conflict between the US and China will divide the whole world.”
Recall here what National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan had told reporters a month ago: “[Biden-Xi summit] is now just a question of when and how.” However, it is interesting that the third top member of Biden’s China “team,” secretary of state Antony Blinken is yet to affirm the White House is making efforts to create an opportunity for the Biden-Xi summit. Perhaps unhappy with the top-level US-China diplomatic dialogue in Alaska four months ago, Biden has been compelled to himself take the initiative in establishing some “rules of the road” and predictability in US-China relations. But what is intriguing is, just before the G20 Ministerial was to be held in Italy a couple of weeks ago, a State Department official denied a possible Blinken-Wang Yi meeting, as the Financial Times had reported.
To sum up, with Sullivan and Campbell already in toe and not much known why Blinken has not yet spoken on the stage being set for Biden-Xi summit in Rome, a report in South China Morning Post yesterday confirmed the US President has instructed the State Department to dispatch the deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman to visit China next week. The Hong Kong daily claims the State Department No. 2 will meet the Chinese vice foreign minister Xie Feng, paving the way for the top-level encounter later in the year. Additionally, Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States also confirmed citing sources of a possible second “telephone meeting” between the two leaders following Wendy Sherman’s visit. A section of the US media is claiming, Xi Jinping willing, a final visit to Beijing by Biden’s “Asia Tsar” Jake Sullivan in September-October will set the stage for Biden to turn the world’s attention on Rome not for G20 but for China-US summit diplomacy, or “G2.”
Postscript: News is just filtering in that the US deputy secretary of state’s China visit has been shown a red flag by Beijing. As was reported earlier (mentioned above), Wendy Sherman’s second Asia tour in as many months beginning tomorrow, was being attached special significance in anticipation of the likely Biden-Xi summit at G20 in Rome later in October. We shall dissect this sudden toughening of diplomatic stance by Beijing, perhaps not seen in many years, in my following analysis.