It’s Good When Rivals Are on Speaking Terms

The conflicts between China and the U.S. cannot be resolved easily, but maybe they can be managed. The summit between Biden and Xi was a start.

If nothing else, they are speaking with each other. They are not waiting until a dangerous crack emerges between China and the U.S., which could happen at any time in the case of Taiwan. Admittedly, it was only a video summit that Joe Biden attended from the White House and Xi Jinping from the Great Hall of the People on Monday evening (in Beijing, it was already Tuesday morning). But both gave three and a half hours of their time. That is at least some good news because a lot of potential causes for conflict have piled up between the two most powerful states in the world.

The presidents have still not met in person since Biden’s inauguration. Xi has not left his country since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Group of 20 summit in Rome and the U.N. climate conference in Glasgow also took place without him. But it is not just the head of state and leader of the party who is making himself scarce. China is noticeably cutting itself off, and not only to protect itself from the virus. The leadership of the People’s Republic sees hostile powers at work everywhere, wanting to interfere with its economic and political advancement. Self-assured Beijing appears to be deceived: It sees resentment and criticism everywhere. In its view, the world is supposed to stay outside. The Financial Times writes of “splendid isolation.”

In recent years, it was the U.S., under Donald Trump, which considered a “decoupling” from China. Now, it is the People’s Republic wanting to make itself economically and technologically more independent. Ideologically, the country under Xi has walled itself in. The leadership is responding to criticism from abroad with nationalistic rage. All these accusations will have no influence on China’s resurgence.

Both Countries Are Arming Themselves against Each Other

For its part, the United States has put the “strategic competition” with China completely at the center of its foreign politics. Admittedly, there were already tentative signs of tensions easing before the virtual summit meeting — China and the U.S. agreed to a collaboration on the fight against climate change in Glasgow — but this only scratches the surface of the great power conflict.

Both countries are arming themselves against each other. The military cooperation between the United States and its Indo-Pacific allies and partners is getting tighter, as the agreement with Australia to build nuclear-powered submarines has recently shown. China, on the other hand, is above all else strengthening its navy and expanding its arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Nowhere is the danger of a military clash bigger than in Taiwan. Biden has repeatedly stressed that the U.S. would “defend” the island nation in the event of a Chinese attack. From China’s point of view, this is an outrageous interference in its internal affairs. The Communist Party believes the reunification of the country is a sacred duty. His country is prepared to exercise patience, Xi explained during his conversation with Biden. But he also threateningly added, “if Taiwan secessionists provoke, or even cross the red line, we will have to take decisive measures.”

Domestically, Xi can feel well prepared for the “strategic competition,” as Biden calls it. The Communist Party’s central committee just hailed him as the “helmsman,” the “people’s leader”; with that, it has put him on a par with the revolutionary leader Mao Zedong. It believes a new era has begun with Xi. The delegates appealed to “the whole party, the entire army and the people of all ethnic groups to rally round even closer to the central committee with Xi Jinping at the core.”

For that reason, it is certain that the Communist Party Congress next fall will give Xi a mandate for at least five more years as the head of party and state. China’s communists seem to think that only he can lead the country politically, economically and militarily to world No. 1 by midcentury, to the place China historically believes it is entitled to. There is just the fact that this is also the place America absolutely would not want to be forced out of.

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