The President of the U.S., Joe Biden, and the President of China, Xi Jinping, held a virtual summit on November 16, 2021 from 8:45 – 12:15 AM (Washington DC time, 8:45 PM, 11-15-2021). Thanks to today's internet technology and media's diligence, I was able to watch the live broadcast of their opening remarks, 3 hours commentators' kibitz from Taiwan on their anxious expectations of this summit, later the press conference of Zhao Li-Jian, spokesperson of China's Foreign Ministrym answering queries for the details of the summit, and the formal readout of the virtual summit by U.S. National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, via a zoom broadcast hosted by John R. Allen, President of Brookings Institution (BI), which was immediately followed by a BI panel discussion, moderated by Suzanne Maloney, VP and Director, Foreign Policy (FP) with panelists: Jessica Brandt, Policy Director, AI and Emerging Technology Initiative and Fellow, FP, Ryan Hass, Senior Fellow and Michael H. Armacost Chair, Chen-Fu and Cecilia Yen Koo Chair in Taiwan Studies, FP, Cheng Li, Senior Fellow and Director, John L. Thornton China Center, and Joshua P. Meltzer, Senior Fellow, Global Economy and Development. All of the above were taken in within 16 hours, free of charge! While everything is fresh on my mind, I will present my view on this highly anticipated G-2 leader summit in this column, “Meaning of Xi-Biden Virtual Summit, Readouts and Comments”.
First, I watched the opening of the virtual meeting on a Taiwan live broadcast so I might follow the Taiwan news commentators on this most sensitive U.S. - China issue. President Biden made the opening remarks first with Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, Secretary of Treasury, Janet Yellen and Kurt Campbell, Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific present. From the opening, both sides said nothing striking except both felt contact and dialog were necessary to manage the relations whether competing or cooperating. From the U.S. participating slate (missing the trade representative, the secretary of commerce and the secretary of defense), one would anticipate no significant and concrete negotiations on trade and military matters at this summit. Sure enough, no specific mentions of them at the end. The Taiwan issue was very sensitive to China and to the current pro-independence administration in Taiwan. With Blinken and Campbell at the summit, there should be some serious discussion on the Taiwan issue. Many political commentators (divided by pro-unification versus pro-independence) there seemed to realize that the U.S. would not support either positions. Taiwan being an unsettled issue is actually fulfilling the best interest of the U.S. One school of thoughts discussed in the open is that Taiwan to Mainland China is comparable to that of Ukraine to Russia in the context of U.S. foreign policy – both as pawns of chess. This thought deserves a future discussion. Watching Biden and his staff's mannerism at the summit opening (concentrating in taking notes), I got the feeling that the U.S. team was not so confident in this diplomatic encounter (胸无成竹）。
The routine press conference of China's Foreign Ministry took place after the summit. (coincidentally?) Naturally, the details of the summit were queried. Mr. Zhao was prepared to describe the summit with four points (1234). There is ONE most important issue, the Taiwan issue, Xi iterated China's position, the one China principle and the Shanghai three communiques. The second point is TWO leaders reached the agreement that US-China relations are important, both need to manage well their domestic affairs, be responsible to the world and not engage in a cold war. There are THREE principles: 1. mutual respect, 2. peaceful coexistence, and 3. cooperating for mutual benefit, governing the US-China relations. The fourth point is to act on FOUR matters: 1. Act like a responsible great nation, 2. promote mutual benefits and apply positive energy in all areas, economy, education, military, …, 3. apply constructive means to manage differences and problems, and 4. increase cooperation on important issues and maintain fair and just world order. This readout concretely summarized China's concerns. More press questions followed, the answers could be netted out as: Two leaders agreed in maintaining close contact and moving towards each other. Hong Kong is China's domestic matter. Reducing tariff question was deflected to other department for answer (obviously, no trade solution was reached and work needed in the days ahead.) Both sides discussed Korean Peninsula situation but the Winter Olympic invitation did not come up and no further meeting date set. The summit appeared to be a good meeting offering the two sides a chance to exchange thoughts and reflect. Xi called Biden an old friend, in Chinese culture that has to be interpreted as a positive friendly gesture with expectation of improving relationship. Biden supported the Taiwan Act and claimed that he understood the Taiwan issue. What I am afraid is that Biden may fail to crisply compare China in 1979 and China today. In 1979 Taiwan was much wealthier than Mainland China and Mainlanders had a rosy perception about Taiwan and the U.S. Today, 2-3 generations later, most Mainland citizens understood that 'exceptionalism' (American term but Chinese uses confidence民族自信）lies in ability, self-reliance and hard drive.
In the readout at the BI zoom broadcast, Jake Sullivan emphasized that Biden had made significant achievements in the FP area like alliances, Quad, AUKUS, global minimum tax, etc. then stressed that the value of a virtual meeting is more than phone calls (Jake is certainly aware of BI's platform and audience.) He summarized the summit opening as Biden giving his clear vision to Xi, raising his concerns on Xinjiang, Hong Kong and South China Sea and a fair amount of discussion on Taiwan issue. Biden welcomed the US-China joint climate statement and expressed that two could work together on North Korea and energy issue. Biden said China's climate act is not a favor to the U.S. There may be a hidden message which we may explore later. In my opinion, John Kerry did a superb job on the climate issue despite of a cold relation between the two countries. The U.S. is working for the international system not against China. The U.S. will stand up for her values. Sullivan's readout is not as crisp as Zhao's (above, 1234) and Deputy Minister, Xie Feng's readout (outlined as 3421). The order of points chosen by Xie might indicate the pragmatism of China's foreign ministry in carrying out its missions, prioritizing issues and having a better diplomatic attitude in solving international relation problems (in contrast to hypocritical manners). The Q&A covered “next step, meeting atmosphere, technology competition, and how to control nuclear weapon escalation”. As expected, Sullivan stayed on official ground and emphasized the value of leader to leader interaction in resolving problems and dealing with strategic issues. Jake painted a positive image on the atmosphere question: They were familiar with each other, referring to the past, both realizing the weight of responsibility needed to be shouldered responsibly. Jake said Biden is always Biden, he will not stand down on hard issues, the discussion on Taiwan was incredibly direct. China for sure was direct but would the U.S. move away from ambiguity? (糢糊政策）That remains to be seen, hopefully not driven by no means. (束手无策）
The BI panel was interesting but more like restating everyone's specialty and beliefs. Summarizing the panelists remarks relating to the summit, the main points are: The US-China relation was dysfunctional, the summit tried to restore and put a floor underneath. Biden faces DC pressure, the summit sent a message that the relation was not a free fall. Nothing said about tariff but important not to walkout of trade negotiation. Some level of relation is better for the U.S. The cooperation of allies is essential. Will Taiwan issue become clear? U.S. bipartisan support for Taiwan was decades long but Biden reiterated no support for Taiwan independence. Both leaders mentioned the past, used good tone and wanted no cold war. Both called out public health as an issue, a good thing. Xi's relaxing travel rules for foreign business people may lead to more contacts. Though relation is tough, it is not impossible to work together. There is a tendency to form a two-block system (trade, energy, IT, navigation, military, …), but do we want that to happen and should we avoid zero-sum game? The real competition is how each delivers results of good governance to each country. Very clearly, the BI panel is encouraging the administration to improve US-China relations!
Was the all-night tracking of the Xi-Bi summit worthwhile? Definitely not for everyone. However, being the first to know the facts, I am more confident to accept mass media's conclusions. For Xi-Bi summit, we see WSJ headline: “Biden Xi Cool Down Hostilities in Virtual Meeting”, NY Times Headline: “Biden and Xi Pledge More Cooperation, but Offer No Breakthrough” and BBC China Correspondent Stephen McDonell: “This does appear to be a genuine attempt at a reset and we should actually expect this to alter global geopolitical relations in a concrete way.” Dr. Wordman agrees.