In advance of President Biden’s Nov. 16 video “Summit” with China’s President Xi Jinping, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki declared that, “the President is coming into this meeting from a position of strength.” Really?! The evidence indicates otherwise, even starting with the format – where Biden’s team would be making the phone call late at night Washington time after a full day’s work, while Xi’s team would be starting fresh in the morning Beijing time. And Xi seemed to hold the strongest hand. He is on the cusp of being elevated to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) political stratosphere on a par with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping and receiving an unprecedented third five-year term to continue his goal to make China the world’s pre-eminent power.
His military is on a crash course to increase its nuclear arsenal, develop technically superior weapons as indicated by the recent launch of a hypersonic missile, and practice destroying US aircraft carriers by building replicas on its desert test range. In recent months his air force saturated Taiwan’s airspace in a show of naked power and intimidation, and his navy continues to enforce China’s inflated claims over the South China sea, trampling other nations’ sovereignty. In a few weeks Xi will proudly showcase China’s “glories” to the world with the Winter Olympics, hoping we overlook his having stamped out any remaining dissent in Hong Kong or his continuing forced “re-education” of China’s Muslim Uyghurs.
Contrast that with President Biden’s standing. His popularity continues to plunge with voters (something Xi never has to worry about) – whether over inflation, “wokeness,” or continuing political dysfunction in Washington. And the major foreign policy event of his Presidency so far has been the disastrous debacle of fleeing Afghanistan. Not exactly “a position of strength!” Xi seemingly even trolled Biden by referring to him as “my old friend” – something Biden has several times protested that he is not, despite their having met several times over the past nine years.
So, was the 3-1/2 hour video call important? Yes! Not necessarily on substance, since such exchanges are choreographed as carefully as Kabuki theater. “Talking points” for both leaders were no doubt drafted in advance, and each was well-prepped for what the other would raise. According to reports, the two leaders engaged on human rights, trade tensions, Covid, and potential cooperation on climate policy. Both seemingly sought to downplay the potential for a flareup over Taiwan – Xi pledging to pursue peaceful reunification and Biden reaffirming America’s “one China” policy. The most important outcome was that the leaders of the world’s two most powerful nations, whose bilateral relations have evolved from competition to hostility, conducted a civil meeting over contentious topics with promised future follow-up by subject matter experts.
But let’s not forget that China’s time horizon is always in decades, not election cycles. China’s leaders believe that their authoritarian, state-controlled social, political and economic model is superior to the West’s “messy” democratic capitalism and will eventually conquer the world. And philosophically they abhor our personal freedoms, societal turbulence, and ever-changing cultural mores. Xi will no doubt participate in future meetings with his American counterpart and speak of cooperation and manageable rivalry to ease our concerns, while energetically pursuing a new world order with Chinese Characters. When it comes to buying Chinese “goodwill” – Caveat Emptor!
Ambassador Tibor Nagy was most recently Assistant Secretary of State for Africa after serving as Texas Tech’s Vice Provost for International Affairs and a 30-year career as a US Diplomat.
This article originally appeared on Lubbock Avalanche-Journal: Tibor Nagy Biden and Xi who is talking from a ‘position of strength’