THE United States is the most powerful country on earth. Most leaders of other countries would feel elated to have a chance to meet US president. But for weeks now, Chinese President Xi Jinping has not responded positively to Washington’s overture for a meeting with President Joe Biden.
Since June 16, officials from Washington have expressed their desire to arrange for a meeting between Biden and Xi. And US media have regularly checked response from Beijing.
According to CNN, White House officials would want the two to meet on the sidelines of the Group of 20 Summit in Rome in October, which both are expected to attend in person; or a separate meeting or simply a telephone call.
However up to now, Beijing has been passive and non-committal. The highest official reaction has come from Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
When asked by the media whether the two world leaders “would engage within 2021” after opening a forum at Tsinghua University on July 3, Wang said: “Of course we want to resume dialogue, but we need to see whether the US has sincerity or not.”
It is clear that Beijing wants equality at a dialogue with Washington, and the latter’s old policy and talking down on China cannot be used anymore.
In a recent press briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin stated Beijing’s position: “China has always made efforts to build non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation ties with the US, but at the same time we will firmly safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests”.
While Wang Yi ’s pointed statement effectively lays down a condition for Washington to fulfil before having a dialogue, it also shows the lack of trust China has on the US. The latter has kept churning out hostile policies against China and Russia.
China has suffered a tense trade war with the US for more than three years, waged by former US president Donald Trump in 2018.
When the first trade deal was finally signed in Jan 2020, Beijing was made to agree to buying US$200bil worth of American goods or services over two years from 2020 to 2021, over and above the US$170bil bought in 2017.
But just as China thought there was peace after signing the deal, the Trump administration began a series of unexpected sanctions on Chinese technology firms a few months later, after banning Huawei and calling its allies to follow suit.When Biden became US president in January, Chinese think tanks appeared to harbour some wishful thinking the new leader might bring back some order and sanity in bilateral relations.
However, there have been more bashings of China under Biden’s rule – worse than Trump’s era. Biden has even roped in his Western and Asian allies to impose sanctions on Chinese officials over Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
There are more intense US military drills in Taiwan Straits and South China Sea, and this has forced Beijing to react more aggressively to defend its sovereignty and national interests.
Last March, Beijing experienced the first blast of US insults under the Biden rule. Ahead of a US-arranged dialogue of top officials in Alaska, smears and sanctions were hurled at China. With no meals being served by the US, the Chinese had to eat instant noodles in between meetings.
Such unprecedented rudeness of the US diplomats infuriated Beijing’s foreign policy chief Yang Jiechi and prompted him to famously tell his American counterparts off openly: “The US does not have the qualification to speak to us from a position of strength.”
Yang reminded the US and the West that China today is no longer the “Sickman of Asia” that the West used to conquer and humiliate.
Last month, during Biden’s trip to Europe, China was whipped again despite its absence. Calling China the “most serious competitor” to the US, Biden rallied allies to counter China as he held talks with the leaders of the G7, Nato and European Union.
On the final leg of his European trip, Biden even attempted - but failed - to pit Moscow against Beijing when he met Russian President Vladimir Putin. He was told by Putin China was no threat.
The Biden administration has often said Beijing has the power to pose serious challenges to the open international system the US is defending, and is encircling China in the Asia Pacific region.
The increasingly hostility shown by Biden’s top officials has jolted Beijing back to political reality: a return to diplomatic normalcy with the US will stay as a dream. In fact, China-US ties now have probably slumped to historic low.
From the reactions of Beijing towards a Xi-Biden meeting, it can be interpreted that Xi does not want to make a hasty decision to meet Biden. But to reject the meeting outright will not look good.
“China is now in a position of strength to deal with the US. The world’s second largest economy is probably the best managed country now. It has strong economic and military power to say no or even ignore Washington,” said Chinese YouTuber Cheng Yue in his post.
The prominent commentator added: “Since the US is so eager to ask for a meeting, there must be something urgent they want from China. Beijing can see this, hence our officials are playing delay tactics or tai-chi with them.”
According to media reports, Campbell said earlier this month the challenge for the US would be to come up with a strategy that presented China with opportunities, but also a response if it takes steps “antithetical to the maintenance of peace and stability”.
Cheng and other Chinese analysts believe that pressing Beijing for a second trade deal could be an important agenda on Biden’s menu.
The first trade deal signed during Trump’s era expires in December. Cheng argues that Biden is under pressure to perform better than Trump on the continuing trade war. Otherwise, he could face political attacks back home and risk losing his bid for the second term as president.
Washington would emerge victorious if Biden could coerce Xi to agree to a second deal, with terms similar to the first -- if not better.
But will Xi give Biden this big goodie amid more US hostility, sanctions, containment and smear?
To be sure, China has emerged stronger after overcoming the Covid-19 pandemic. It can afford not to be soft. Its post-Covid-19 recovery saw China’s GDP growth accelerate to over 18% year-on-year in the first quarter of this year.
China is more assertive after emerging as a world power with economic, technological and military might. It is more influential internationally after its eight-year-old Belt and Road Initiative helped and benefited many developing countries.
Xi’s ruling Communist Party of China just celebrated its centennial on an unprecedented scale on July 1, and its success in governing China has won praise from within and outside the country.
At the celebration ceremony, Xi sent potential aggressors this bold message: “Any foreign force which bullies, oppresses or subjugates us will find themselves on a collision course with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people and get their heads smashed and bled.”
For the Chinese who have withstood more than three year of trade war and sanctions started by Trump, there is nothing more to fear and lose. Indeed both countries have suffered in the long trade war. But according to most analyses, about 90% of the additional tariffs slapped on Chinese goods have been borne by the American firms and consumers. The main losers in this trade war are the US businesses and people.
And for businessmen which have left China for a third country to avoid being hurt by the trade war, they are returning to the mainland to seize investment opportunities offered under the mid- and long-term economic strategies of China.
“China has adjusted to the US trade war well. In fact, we have merged stronger. The sanctions and smears against China have failed to shake the people’s support for our government. What more can the US do to hurt China?” said Yang Fong, another prominent Chinese YouTuber.
“The US does not seem to have new and strong cards to undermine China now. Beijing has the ability to deal with the blows from US. In the worst case scenerio, China’s military is even prepared to go for war. What else can they pressure China for a meeting?” he added.
Interestingly, the US is sending out mixed messages despite giving the impression it really wants a summit badly.
On July 6, White House Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell said it was possible for China and US to coexist in peace. He also said the US will not support Taiwan’s independence from Beijing. All these are appeasing statements for China.
However, several days later Washington began imposing sanctions on Chinese companies.
Meanwhile, there are also media reports stating that American officials are arranging an in-person meeting of leaders from Japan, India and Australia to Washington for consultations ahead of a potential meeting with Xi. This quad meeting could be another platform to hit out at Beijing.
If Washington is not prepared to create a conducive atmosphere for a meaningful Xi-Biden dialogue that has impact on the world, China is justified to hold back till the US gets down off its high horse.