Some Reasons for Optimism
The much-ballyhooed first in-person summit between Pres. Biden and Xi on November 14 went off pretty well. Biden clearly communicated the US belief that a new Cold War will not happen, that the US is “not looking for conflict” with China, and that the US does not expect China to invade Taiwan. For his part, Xi reiterated the longstanding Chinese position that Taiwan is a “core interest” and that stability in the Taiwan Strait is “incompatible” with Taiwan’s independence—China’s red line. He agreed with Biden (echoing Ronald Reagan) that “nuclear war must never be fought, and can never be won,” a clear rejection of possible Russian use of a nuclear weapon in Ukraine. And Xi reiterated what he has said to Biden about cooperation at previous virtual meetings: “It is in our mutual interest to benefit from each other’s development. It is also in our mutual interest to promote post-COVID global recovery, tackle climate change and resolve regional issues through China-U.S. coordination and cooperation. The two sides need to respect each other, pursue mutual benefit, focus on the larger picture, and nurture a sound atmosphere and stable relations for cooperation.” He and Biden agreed to form joint working groups on climate change and other issues.
There was also disagreement. Xi rejected Biden’s division of the world into autocracies and democracies, saying: “The so-called “democracy versus authoritarianism” narrative is not the defining feature of today’s world, still less does it represent the trend of the times.” Xi also challenged the prevailing US view that China is a threat to the US political system or its primacy in the international order: “China has never sought to change the existing international order, does not interfere in the internal affairs of the United States, and has no intention to challenge or replace the United States.”
That last point deserves further discussion, because I think it is central to US-China differences and might very well be the obstacle that keeps the Bali meeting from becoming the jump-off point for a new era of US-China engagement.
Different Understandings of National Security
What I believe Xi was trying to convey to Biden is that the two countries have very different understandings of national security. While the US view has always been outward-looking, seeing national security as dependent on international security, China looks at national security from the inside out. As Xi explained last year, national security is political security, and political security is regime security—that is, the security of the Chinese Communist Party-state. Xi said at Bali: “Leadership of the CPC and China’s socialist system have the support of 1.4 billion people. They are the fundamental guarantee for China’s development and stability. For China and the United States to get along, it is vital to recognize and respect such difference.” When Xi told Biden that neither side should seek to change the other’s system, he was warning against US interference (as he saw it) in Chinese society (repression of human rights, in other words), its economic development (by decoupling the two economies), its building of security coalitions directed at China, and of course Chinese claims of sovereignty over Taiwan.
Given current US policies on those four issues, and the Republican Party’s announced intent to force a further hardening of US policy on China, the Bali spirit may not prevail for long. With strong support from the bipartisan consensus on China in Congress, the Biden administration is doing precisely what Xi warned against. It is pressing China on repression in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and dissent in general; it is barring China from access to advanced computer chip and supercomputer technology; it has formed or revitalized security groups (AUKUS and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) to address the China threat; and it is strengthening ties with Taiwan both politically and militarily. Viewed from Beijing, a new Cold War and US containment of China look to again be the cornerstones of American policy. That is why Xi warned Biden that containment will not succeed against China.
Xi said at Bali: “Neither side should try to remold the other in one’s own image, or seek to change or even subvert the other’s system. Instead of talking in one way and acting in another, the United States needs to honor its commitments with concrete action.” That statement is a direct response to the China-threat school that now predominates here. The Biden administration should test Xi’s position and hold open the possibility of reexamining the premises of its current China policy. It cannot, and should not, avoid speaking out in defense of human rights, while recognizing that setting an example on respect for human rights at home and in foreign relations is crucial to US credibility. But economic decoupling, anti-China security alignments, and deeper military ties with Taiwan undermine stable relations with China and thus Asia-Pacific security as well. The Bali summit has enough substantive agreement to warrant positive next steps, but only if (as the Chinese like to say) the US abandons its “Cold War mentality.”
(Note: The Chinese summary, in English, of the Bali summit is at https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/202211/t20221114_10974686.html. The US readout of the summit is at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/11/14/readout-of-president-joe-bidens-meeting-with-president-xi-jinping-of-the-peoples-republic-of-china/.)