A Fine Line for Discussion

From the introductory remarks to the actual exchange between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping during their virtual summit, the gap remains wide between the two superpowers, according to the final reports. No one expected any more given the multiple sources of tension on both sides. Nonetheless, the fact that the “work session” lasted almost 3 1/2 hours can at least be seen as an opportunity for more advanced discussions, although the session was not really productive.

The official goal of the virtual meeting was to project the image of two superpowers seeking a way to defuse the current situation and avoid escalation, or as Biden said, “… to ensure that our competition between our two countries does not veer into conflict” — either in cyberspace or in Indo-Pacific waters. The international community is grateful for this, but the result is no less tenuous.

It was understood that neither Biden nor Xi is interested in a military confrontation over Taiwan. The fact remains that their respective reports after the summit are limited to previously lists of grievances. So much so that Biden’s report mentioned human rights violations in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, and criticized the “unfair” trade and economic politics in Beijing. Xi’s report warned the White House not to play with fire on the question of Taiwan, explicitly indicating that a new cold war — which he is also working to cultivate — would be “disastrous for the world.” Such remarks present few prospects for peace from either side.

For both, it was certainly a summit held to address domestic policy. And this is perhaps where it was most revealing: two men embodying the current polarized state of the world — an America whose democracy is failing versus that of a Chinese dictatorship standing firm. On one side, Biden is trying to land on his feet, but yet is projecting the image of a man who can’t keep his head above water. He is the president of a country ravaged by a political and social divide, where the Donald Trumps and the Steve Bannons of the world are still trying to unseat him.

On the other side is Xi, more sure of himself than ever, at the head of a China that is more influential than ever; his totalitarian plan has just been approved by the plenum of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. It is true that the motivations of the Chinese regime are obscure, and that the country is faced with immense development challenges. Be that as it may, by playing along in this summit, Xi’s stature will be amplified in China, unlike the situation Biden faces in the U.S.

Furthermore, it is a virtual summit that disappointingly will not involve collaboration on fighting climate change. On the contrary. The 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference of the Parties, which just ended in Glasgow, essentially ruined any chances of quick and concrete progress in combating climate change. But there was a sign of hope in the surprise announcement during COP26 of an agreement on environmental collaboration between the United States and China, the two biggest contributors to carbon dioxide pollution in the world. Washington emphasized that this accord provided that there would be a distinct approach to the ecological question, unlike the approach to other disputes. But hat was certainly not the case! Monday evening, Xi told Biden that environmental cooperation depended on the overall state of the relationship between the two countries. Even on such a crucial issue, the threads of discussion are thin, too thin.

Additionally, Biden’s calendar shows that he will meet Thursday in Washington with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, during a summit of the “three amigos.” Having suffered through the Huawei diplomatic hostage affair with Beijing, as well as Trump’s bragging about his response to China, Trudeau would be well advised to convince Biden that the solution to his battle with China can be found in stronger solidarity with U.S. allies, among other things, of course. However, the president has not achieved such solidarity, despite his call for multilateralism.

This was evident in the affront to France after the deal concerning submarine sales to Australia. It is evident now with Canada in the fact that the U.S. wants to apply ultraprotectionist economic policies, notably in the domain of electric car manufacturing, with elections in mind. Under Biden just as under Trump — but differently — the United States is flexing an unfortunate reflex of taking Canada a bit too much for granted.

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