There were red carpets and red lines for US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping. But putting a foot wrong on the Indonesian island of Bali was never an option.
Instead, they held a tête-à-tête shrouded in an atmosphere of mutual distrust on the eve of the Group of 20 Summit. Warm handshakes failed to pierce the chill factor.
“This is, in a sense, the first superpower summit of the Cold War Version 2.0,” Evan Medeiros, who was Barack Obama’s top adviser on Asia-Pacific affairs, said as reported by The New York Times.
For the two most powerful leaders on the planet, it was their first face-to-face meeting since Biden moved into the White House nearly two years ago. They last met when he was vice-president in 2015 during President Xi’s state visit to the United States.
Since then, the world has dramatically changed. Relations between Washington and Beijing are now mired in suspicion and at times outright hostility.
“[The] meeting between Biden and Xi [has] occurred at a tense time in the US-China relationship,” Sheena Chestnut Greitens, of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, told Radio Free Asia.
“The buildup in Chinese military and nuclear capabilities, combined with a relative lack of dialogue to understand China’s intentions and lack of robust crisis management mechanisms, pose significant risks to stability in the US-China relationship,” she said.
After more than three hours of talks behind closed doors, the diplomatic temperature hardly budged above freezing point, despite the tropical setting. But at least they evaded the geopolitical icebergs in a climate fraught with risks. They also agreed to manage their “differences” by keeping open channels of communication.
Outlining his “red lines,” Biden talked about Beijing’s “coercive and increasingly aggressive actions” toward Taiwan. He also raised concerns on human rights issues in “Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong.” China’s “economic practices,” or shorthand for trade tensions, were other topics discussed.
In response, Xi reiterated that Taiwan was a “red line that must not be crossed.” He stressed that “anyone that seeks to split Taiwan from China will be violating the fundamental interests of the Chinese nation.”
It was clear, it was blunt and it was aimed at Washington’s close relationship with Taipei and the build-up of arms sales to the democratic island.
Xi also took a swipe at Biden’s premise of a battle between “democracies versus autocracies” and the “red lines” that enshrine a free and open society.
“The so-called ‘democracy versus autocracy’ narrative is not the defining feature of today’s world, still less does it represent the trend of the times. The United States has American-style democracy. China has Chinese-style democracy,” he told Biden as reported by China’s state-run media.
Yet the only ambiguity about the statement was whether he said it with a straight face. As the “chairman of everything,” Xi has an unprecedented hold on the ruling Communist Party.
He presides over a de facto one-party state that closely resembles a dictatorship more than a democracy. The Party controls the judiciary, the media, and the censors that prowl the online chatrooms. Persistent critics of Xi end up behind bars.
As for the nearly one billion eligible voters in the country, they are just a silent audience in a tragic farce. Universal suffrage does not exist in the world’s second-largest economy.
Salient points, which were conveniently glossed over by China’s government-controlled media. Never let the facts obscure the puppets of propaganda.
Xinhua, the official news agency of the Party, spearheaded the assault. “The past years have seen bilateral relations at a low ebb. For such setbacks Washington should take the blame,” it stated in a commentary.
“These days a group of China hawks in the United States has been framing a false narrative of ‘democracy versus authoritarianism.’ They scheme to stir up [an] ideological confrontation between the two countries and hostilities between the two peoples,” Xinhua said.
China Daily, the state-run English-language newspaper, echoed the Party line in an editorial. “The fact remains that previous talks have not helped check the souring relations between the two countries [with] the Biden administration continually [saying that] ‘we can get along’ while acting to the contrary,” it pointed out.
“[Washington] has never ceased trying to shake the foundation of Sino-US ties in any way it can – blacklisting Chinese companies, fabricating allegations of human rights abuses by China and provoking Beijing on the Taiwan question, among others,” China Daily said.
Still, by the end of the week, the red carpets will be rolled up as the curtain falls on the G20 Summit. Only the red lines will linger in the Bali sand.
Juweihu is a pseudonym for a China Factor columnist.