The president of the United States, Joe Biden, and the leader of the Chinese regime, Xi Jinping, meet this Monday virtually to try to redirect the relationship between the two powers, which is at its worst since the reestablishment of formal diplomatic contact , in 1979. The environmental agreement reached last week in Glasgow is a striking truce in an escalation of tension that does not spare just one front: from the economic to the military, passing through the technological one.
The meeting, which neither party has wanted to define as a “summit”, comes surrounded by low expectations, intense preparations and few details. A precise agenda has not been released, nor are very concrete results expected. Both presidents may seek agreement on a series of initiatives developed by working groups from the two countries to reduce friction. But given the tensions and disagreements between the two governments, the fact that the meeting takes place already represents progress in itself.
One thing is clear: Taiwan, the self-governing island that Beijing considers part of its territory and one of its fundamental interests, will be one of the main issues to be discussed. It is one of the great sticking points in bilateral relations, and last week the temperature of the dispute rose one more degree with the visit to the island of a delegation of US congressmen. The situation between the two banks of the Formosa Strait already dominated the preparatory telephone conversation on Saturday between the heads of the respective diplomats, Antony Blinken and Wang Yi. Then, the American expressed to his Chinese counterpart his country’s concern about the “continuous military, diplomatic and economic pressure on Taiwan” by Beijing. The Chinese foreign minister in turn warned Washington against supporting the island’s “independence”.
Hours before the video meeting, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian assured that relations between the two powers are at a critical moment. “We hope that the United States can be flexible with China, manage differences and sensitive issues, and stay on the path of mutual respect and a peaceful attitude,” he declared at his department’s daily press conference.
Biden would have preferred it to be held in the traditional way: face to face, perhaps taking advantage of the recent G20 meetings in Rome or COP26 in Glasgow. But Xi has not traveled abroad for almost two years, as a precaution against the covid pandemic. Both leaders come to the meeting in very different situations: the American, in a steady decline in popularity due to its internal problems and despite support for its infrastructure plan. The Chinese, recently consecrated by his Communist Party as a historical figure, something that paves the way for him to be appointed next year for a third term unprecedented in the last three decades.
The authoritarian drift of the Asian giant, unfair economic competition and the increase in the nuclear arsenal are of increasing concern in Washington. Beijing, on the other hand, has not found in the new tenant of the White House someone more like-minded than his predecessor, Republican Donald Trump. The Democrat, who in the past has referred to Xi as a “bully,” took the lead last October by declaring himself willing to defend Taiwan in case of attack. The White House had to rectify later and emphasize that there was no change in policy towards the island.
Join EL PAÍS now to follow all the news and read without limits
The episode reflected, however, the climate of renewed misgivings. The Asian regime has redoubled the military presence in the area and set off alarms due to the reinforcement of its nuclear weapons. Last week, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, in which Biden also participated, Xi warned against a return to the “confrontation and division of the cold war” in the region.
Last October, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley confirmed in an interview on Bloomberg Television that China had tested an advanced hypersonic weapon. “It is very worrying,” he said, and conceded that it was something close to “a Sputnik moment”, referring to the beginning of the space race between the United States and the former USSR, when Moscow launched the first artificial satellite in 1957. An air of Cold War surrounds this new stage of hostility, which once again confronts a democracy with an authoritarian regime, although this time the adversary of the North Americans exhibits an economic power that the Soviet never approached.
In his first speech as president of the United States in the United Nations Assembly, last September, Biden stressed that he was not looking for that type of conflict, but also stressed that he would react if Beijing made a move. “We are not looking for a new cold war, or a world divided into rigid blocs, but the US will oppose any attempt by powerful countries to dominate those that are weaker,” he said without citing China.
The meeting between the two presidents will also address issues such as climate change – the main area of collaboration that both capitals perceive, rescued by their bilateral agreement in Glasgow – or the commercial relationship. It is also likely that security in Asia Pacific will be addressed after the signing of the agreement between the US, the United Kingdom and Australia known as Aukus. Especially the situation in the South China Sea, over which Beijing claims sovereignty over most of those waters and where a US nuclear submarine suffered an accident last month. “Any attempt to draw ideological divisions or to form little circles with geopolitical criteria is destined to fail,” Xi had declared at the APEC summit, in an apparent allusion to Aukus.
The video meeting – Monday afternoon in Washington, Tuesday morning in Beijing – will be the first between Biden and Xi since the Democrat arrived at the White House in January. So far they have spoken twice on the phone. In the first, in February, the American criticized the crackdown on Hong Kong and the abuses of Uighurs and other minorities in the Xinjiang region.
Follow all the international information at Facebook and Twitter, o en our weekly newsletter.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.