Responsibility and respect were the watchwords in the virtual summit held earlier this week between the leaders of the world’s rival superpowers: US President Joseph Biden and China’s leader Xi Jinping.
China had just elevated President Xi to the same preeminent status as erstwhile leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, while Biden signed a major infrastructure bill geared at enhancing the US economy’s competitiveness that waned as China’s stature rose.
Recall that in 2018, former President Donald Trump declared a 25 percent tariff on some US$550 billion of Chinese goods as China leveled tariffs on US$185 billion of US goods thereby signaling a trade war between the two countries.
Both Biden and Xi had extensive exposure to each other while they served as vice presidents and their body language during the summit projected ease and familiarity even as they tackled serious concerns that signaled the need for establishing new guardrails for their countries’ bilateral relationship.
Xi framed it appropriately when he pointed out that “We face multiple challenges together. As the world’s two largest economies and permanent members of the UN Security Council, China and the United States need to increase communication and cooperation.”
Biden matched his counterpart’s statement: By pointing out their shared “responsibility as leaders of China and the United States to ensure that the competition between our countries does not veer into conflict, whether intended or unintended.” Then, while calling for “some common sense guardrails,” he said the two countries should aim for “simple, straightforward competition.”
He took the opportunity to declare that the US seeks to maintain “peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” even as Xi issued a veiled warning that “those who play with fire (on the Taiwan issue) will be burned.” Also on his agenda were human rights issues pertaining to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy advocates and concerns over the protection of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang province.
Biden underlined the importance of transparency in preventing future outbreaks of disease, apparently referring to China’s unwillingness to allow the World Health Organization to probe deeper into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan.
Although Xi did not join the UN’s COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow, Scotland, both China and the US participated in a joint pledge to cut carbon emissions.
On speculations that Xi might use the opportunity to invite Biden to the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, officials said the topic did not arise.
Probably the best summary of the virtual summit may be gleaned from the two leaders’ opening remarks.
“Although it’s not as good as a face-to-face meeting,” Xi said as the summit got underway, “I’m very happy to see my old friend.” Biden also used less formal language, saying “We’ve spent an awful lot of time talking to one another, and I hope we can have a candid conversation tonight as well.”
They probably did — as the conversation went beyond three and a half hours — an outcome that was certainly reassuring to the rest of the world.