G-20 Summit in Indonesia: Between China and the US, Appeasement and Its Limits

If Joe Biden and Xi Jinping managed to force themselves to avoid all warmongering rhetoric in reaffirming their respective positions at the Group of 20 Summit in Bali, the contentious topics between Washington and Beijing remain fundamental ones, and their rivalry will continue to weigh on much of international relations.

Given that the first encounter between Joe Biden’s and Xi Jinping’s advisors in March 2021 in Anchorage, Alaska, was overwhelmingly acrimonious, concerns were running high on the eve of the first face-to-face meeting between the American and Chinese presidents on the margins of the G-20 summit.

Moreover, this meeting took place after a summer of heightened tensions. These had been exacerbated by Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s spectacular visit to Taiwan and by a battery of Chinese reprisals, beginning with a surge of military activity in the strait separating the continent from the island whose imminent return to China’s iron rule, by any possible means, Beijing never ceases to proclaim.

In Bali, the two leaders chose to put the potentially devastating escalation on hold. Each reaffirmed their own position, clearly without lowering their guard, but nonetheless forcing themselves to avoid all warmongering rhetoric. Another example of this effort to restore calm is the first meeting in years scheduled between the Chinese president and an Australian prime minister, currently Anthony Albanese.

This in itself is good news. International disruptions, starting with the one fed by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, are alarming enough that adding in a “cold war” between the two major powers that dominate the world would hope to be avoided at any cost. The urgency created by a profound crisis, climate change, equally requires, almost as a prerequisite, the cooperation of the two greatest polluters on the planet.

The Need for Europe To Come Together

The unexpected results of the U.S. midterm elections, which strengthened President Biden, put him in a stronger position than predicted. Beijing furthermore knows that the Chinese challenge constitutes one of the very rare points of convergence between the Democrats and Republicans in Washington. After a 20th Chinese Communist Party congress that was entirely devoted to him, Xi is in an equally good position. This double reaffirmation may have paradoxically eased the way towards a common path, still embryonic.

A pause, however, is not an easement, because the contentious topics between the two great powers remain fundamental and critical. Xi was careful not to depart from the Chinese rhetoric regarding Taiwan or the Ukraine conflict, the first test of the “limitless” friendship pact concluded between Beijing and Moscow on the eve of the war. This friendship does not hide the fact that its target is a collection of regulations which have been in effect for decades and are upheld by the U.S.

The latter, for its part, is not ready to either relinquish territory in the extensive Indo-Pacific region or deescalate the commercial war with Beijing triggered by Donald Trump. The U.S. has even increased barriers in order to preserve technological advantage, notably in the area of semi-conductors, which U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has stated firmly “is not a ‘domestic issue’ or ‘national security’ issue. It’s both.”

The rivalry between Washington and Beijing will thus continue to weigh on a significant part of international relations. The other major actors, beginning with the Europeans, can only take note of this and conclude that they can defend their individual interests better by coming together as a group rather than acting in disarray.

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