An article by: Editorial board

During talks that lasted more than four hours, Joe Biden and Xi Jinping showed the world that the two superpowers had returned to dialogue

It’s another hair-pulling moment for US diplomat Antony Blinken. Just two and a half hours after a seemingly productive meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Joe Biden made an awkward comment at a press conference following the US-China summit. A single word could jeopardize all the diplomatic work done so far by the United States and China.

Immediately after a highly sensitive meeting that lasted more than four hours and which could mark a historic turning point in relations between Washington and Beijing, Biden again called Xi Jinping a “dictator.”

This was not just another diplomatic gaffe. The US President did not want to change his mind or answer the uncomfortable question differently. “Mr. President, after today, will you still call President Xi ‘dictator’? That’s the word you used earlier this year,” Biden was asked. Everyone expected the occupant of the White House to extend an “olive branch,” but Biden instead wanted to once again present himself as a “tough nut to crack.”

“Well, look, it’s like that. What I mean is that he is a dictator in the sense that he leads a communist country based on a completely different form of government than ours. However…,” said the American president, before closing the topic.

Already in July, the US President used the term “dictator” to refer to his Chinese counterpart. Back then, Beijing very sharply condemned Biden’s words. A representative of the Chinese Foreign Ministry called the assessments of the White House host “absurd and irresponsible.” Now China’s reaction was also sharp: it condemned this definition of Xi Jinping, calling it “extremely incorrect.” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning stated, “Such talk is extremely wrong and is irresponsible political manipulation. China strongly opposes this.”

Biden’s words risk – at best – slowing the materialization of the complex diplomatic work aimed at warming relations between the two superpowers. Immediately after the summit and before Biden’s embarrassing comment, the Chinese diplomatic service issued a press release emphasizing that “the two leaders exchanged views in an atmosphere of mutual respect.”

“As long as the two countries respect each other, coexist in peace, and strive for mutually beneficial cooperation, they will be able to fully overcome differences and find the right path to the future,” the official statement said. Beijing also emphasized the importance of the two countries “appreciating each other’s principles and red lines and refraining from tantrums, provocative actions, and stepping out of bounds.”

Taiwan and direct lines of communication

The meeting between Biden and Xi Jinping took place at the elegant Filoli Estate, a former filming location for the soap opera Dynasty, chosen to highlight that the China-US summit is a separate historical event, which is “off the sidelines” of the Pacific Economic Organization (APEC) meeting.

The talks were meant to show the world that Washington and Beijing are talking again. “For two big countries, such as China and the USA, turning their backs on each other is not an option. It is unrealistic for one side to reshape the other,” Xi Jinping said at the opening of the meeting.

But despite Biden also calling for the need to “understand each other clearly and ensure that competition does not lead to conflict,” the positions of Washington and Beijing on many more important issues remained very far apart.

In particular, on Taiwan, one of the most sensitive bilateral issues, Biden limited himself to repeating that he “adheres to the one-China policy” and that he “does not support full independence for the island.” However, he reiterated the need for “stability and peace” in the Taiwan Strait, which is at the center of Chinese military maneuvers and pressure. In this context, American sources stated that “no agreements have been reached on the demilitarization of the South China Sea.”

However, some important progress has been achieved, as it was decided to reopen the communication channel between the bureaus of the two countries. “He and I,” Biden said, “agreed that we could each pick up the phone and make a call so we could contact each other immediately.” At the same time, it was announced that the direct channel of communication between high military levels, interrupted for more than a year after the visit of former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in the summer of 2022, would be resumed.

Biden and Xi also found common ground while discussing the fight against fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that has caused thousands of deaths in America in recent years. They decided to “create a drug enforcement cooperation group to combat the spread of fentanyl.” According to Americans, the substance is produced by Mexican cartels from Chinese chemical precursors.

Trade wars and sanctions

However, nothing has been done to lift the economic and commercial sanctions imposed on China by the United States, as well as the corresponding Chinese embargoes, which have sharply limited the export of many strategic goods. The Chinese President reiterated that US actions against China “in the areas of export controls, investment screening, and unilateral sanctions seriously harm China’s legitimate interests.” In other words, the White House’s trade policy implies an attack on the right to economic growth. “It is important for the USA to take China’s concerns seriously,” Xi said, “and then take tangible steps to lift unilateral sanctions to ensure an equal, fair, and non-discriminatory environment for Chinese businesses.”

Among other fundamental issues at the center of the Biden-Xi Jinping talks was the fight against climate change. Biden asked China to do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The head of the White House invited the Chinese leader to “work together to accelerate efforts for solving the climate crisis.”

Finally, many other topics, from artificial intelligence to the war between Israel and Hamas and the North Korean dossier, were touched upon in passing by the two leaders. In other words, the Biden-Xi Jinping summit in San Francisco does not represent a true “reset,” but rather a resumption of dialogue at all levels, including the military, to prevent competition from leading to conflict. The world hopes that this new tête-à-tête, despite Biden’s disrespectful comments, will allow a real process of thaw to begin.

Giornalisti e Redattori di Pluralia

Editorial board