Then-US vice-president Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping toast during a state luncheon for China on September 25, 2015, at the Department of State in Washington, DC. Photo: AFP / Paul J Richards

On Thursday, the presidents of the United States and China held their fifth bilateral online conversation since Joe Biden took office in the White House in January 2021. However, these frequent summits have not helped the two leaders achieve anything substantive. These conversations usually rely on semantics and last for several hours, and the two presidents often appear distracted or stuck in ritualistic text reading. 

Indeed, these two world leaders have not as yet had a single offline interaction. For his part, President Xi has not traveled outside China for the last two-plus years of the Covid-19 pandemic and is not likely to do so any time soon.

For the rest of the world, the enduring uncertainties and anxieties between the leaders of the two most powerful countries have implications far and wide. 

And thanks to their persisting domestic challenges – where one faces historically low popularity ratings and is widely expected not to run for a second term in office, while the other faces factional infighting over his intention to take an unprecedented third term in office – this stalemate is not going to disappear in a hurry.

Add to this the larger enduring narratives of the rise of China coinciding with America’s relative decline and, more recently, tensions triggered by the pandemic and the Ukraine crisis further confirming a cold war in the making, and there begins to unravel a scary prognosis where bonhomie between these two leaders becomes a prerequisite for global peace and prosperity.

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With so much premium (read glamour) attached the US and Chinese presidencies, Donald Trump of course is often excused for being new to politics and condoned for having rattled both American domestic politics and its foreign policy. This also explains the inordinate hope that was placed on Biden, who came into the White House to redeem the American slide from global leadership.

Unlike Trump, Biden had decades of experience at the forefront of US politics. The same is true of the long tenure of Xi Jinping.

But if anything, their track record of bilateral equations should have inspired caution against putting too much hope in their building strong synergies. As vice-presidents, the two had multiple long face-to-face interactions.

But in the 18 months since Biden took office on the promise of “America is back,” he has so far failed even to climb down from Tump’s trade and technology wars against the world’s second-largest economy. Instead, Biden’s engagements, one after another, have begun betraying fatigue on undoing its Trump legacy.

Fissures in US alliance relationships abroad and raging inflation, price rises and slow growth at home increase the likelihood of Donald Trump contesting the next presidential election and perhaps even returning to office to continue with what, his followers believe, he left unfinished.

Meanwhile the rest of the world remains dependent on the personal power of leaders like Biden and Xi, who seem far too deeply entangled with their day-to-day crisis of ensuring personal popularity, falling increasingly short on statesmanlike qualities and clueless on cultivating an enduring partnership. It is a no-brainer that a stable US-China relationship is not a matter of choice and has implications beyond their bilateral ties.

Lost opportunities

The truth is that much more is expected from political sagacity of seasoned leaders like Biden and Xi. Beginning from China’s rise and former US president Barack Obama’s “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific, China has come to be the most important country for American leaders. 

Once it was clear that vice-president Xi was in line to become the next Chinese leader and yet was largely a mystery, vice-president Biden “was assigned the task of getting to know him.” So as vice-president, Biden would often travel with Xi during his inter-city flights during his US visits and often hold long meetings.

Even when Xi became president of China, vice-president Biden’s December 2013 visit to China saw them having another five-hour high-level interaction that made media headlines. Likewise, when President Xi made his first state visit to the US in September 2015, the welcome dinner was hosted by vice-president Biden. All this should have given an impression of deep bonhomie for bold initiatives.

Prima facie, it remains unclear if these long meetings and travels together created any personal warmth and chemistry capable of overcoming mutual irritations and challenges. If anything, it is their short-term personal gains that seem to guide their zigzag tightrope-walking. 

For instance, Biden, as a presidential candidate in 2020 contesting against the temperamental Trump, sought to emphasize being tough on Xi, thus attacking him with epithets like a “thug” who “doesn’t have a democratic, with a small D, bone in his body.”

That sort of thing is fine if it reveals any sustained predictable trajectory, but Biden has lacked consistency in his China policy. And this lack of consistency has resulted in a gradual buildup of brinkmanship with Beijing, particularly over Taiwa.

Strategic ambiguity

Meanwhile all sides continue to hide behind semantics like hedging and strategic ambiguity. The most recent example is weeks of reports and reactions on the alleged plans for a visit by US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan, which she has neither confirmed nor denied at this writing.

But President Biden has gone public urging her to avoid it and also saying that the US military is also against such a visit, with Pelosi adding further fuel to the fire by asking whether the military expected her plane to be attacked by the Chinese. Such subterfuge defies logic.

The fact that the third in line to the US presidency could be planning a visit to Taiwan – which is known to be such a sensitive issue for Beijing – and that, given constitutional checks and balances, the president has no authority to stop her has resulted in China’s Ministry of Defense issuing warnings of strong military action if such a visit materializes.

The fact that such unconfirmed media reports could consume the Thursday online summit of Biden and Xi shows how subterfuge and semantics can sideline the substantive. How could that be when Biden is often described as someone who has stood for engaging China even at cost of negating genuine aspirations of Taiwanese?

After entering the US Senate in 1973 and witnessing tectonic changes under president Richard Nixon’s China policy, and then being one of the 90 senators to vote for the Taiwan Relations Act, Biden developed a strong “engaging China” policy that saw him oppose the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act in 1999 and in 2001 explicitly warn Taiwan’s newly elected president Chen Shui-bian against declaring independence unilaterally, “because we are not willing to go to war” over such an act.

But politics triumphs, and the politics of the weak triumphs most unabashedly. In the face of contesting an election against a whimsical Donald Trump, who as president-designate had made history by making a direct phone call to Taiwanese president-elect Tsai Ing-wen, Joe Biden was to become the first Democratic presidential candidate to make a similar phone call to her on her election to a second term on office. 

Short-term gains often dictate strategies of being active without being productive. That is what Thursday’s summit achieved.

In the end, marking one more round of rituals, Chinese media reports claimed that Xi told Biden “if you play with fire you get burned,” while the US readout was equally bland and sketchy, saying the “United States strongly opposes efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” which says nothing.

Follow Swaran Singh on Twitter @SwaranSinghJNU.

Swaran Singh is visiting professor at the University of British Columbia, fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Calgary, Alberta, and professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.