This week, US President Joe Biden met his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping outside San Francisco, nearly a year to the day since their last chinwag in Bali. Much has happened since then.
It is also, not insignificantly, a little under a year away from the next US Presidential Election.
The perfectly-timed meeting occurred on the fringes of the APAC meeting of leading Asian and Pacific nation leaders gathered for their annual summit but, of course, any US-China meeting – the last two genuine global superpowers – is always going to dominate proceedings.
Like Royal Weddings and FIFA sponsorship announcements, these things don’t just happen.
They take months to plan, choreograph, and facilitate. Both sides agree what will and won’t be revealed publicly, what is strictly for private consumption only, and what and how suitable titbits will be reported to the global media.
In addition to the bossmen’s formal bilateral meeting, Biden and Xi’s people meet, host lunches with various advisers, and side-bar conversations with corporate, military and community leaders take place.
There are many audiences watching and listening – from Beijing to Washington, Tehran to Moscow, Taipei to Tel Aviv.
And, especially early in an election year, there must be positive outcomes for both sides; addressing domestic and global policy, and because politics is show-business for the ugly, a healthy dose of positioning and posturing.
This meeting didn’t underperform.
Perhaps the headline event was the formal agreement to start military-to-military communications again.
The Chinese had hung up the ‘phone on the Pentagon after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan last summer and US planes shot down a Chinese spy-balloon earlier in the year.
Now, it was agreed to provide U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin with the new cell phone number for the next Chinese Defence Secretary as soon as a suitable replacement for former minister Li Shangfu can be found.
Li disappeared mysteriously last month and hasn’t been seen since. That’s politics, folks!
Ever since Pelosi’s visit, the waters around the Chinese-claimed island have been hot with military manoeuvres, fly overs and ‘exercises’.
In the run up to the meeting, Pentagon officials reported that in the past couple of years, China’s military has engaged in more than 180 incidents of “coercive and risky operational behaviour” against US assets in international airspace over the East and South China seas.
Lloyd Austin, who strategically wasn’t at the meeting to not meet his non-existent counterpart, welcomed the news.
“I won’t make any predictions about China’s future behaviour,” he told reporters. “What I will say is that we will continue to need the mechanism to manage crises and make sure we prevent things from spiralling out of control from time to time.”
Good. Tooled-up nuclear nations and ‘spiralling out of control’ is never a good combination.
Now that they had agreed to let the Generals and Defence leaders talk again, Taiwan was destined to be the next topic of conversation.
Here the art of ‘political language’, the careful choice of words, came to the fore.
Biden reaffirmed the United States’ “One China” policy.
This acknowledges the People’s Republic of China and recognises Taiwan as part of China based on a ‘political communique’ written in 1972.
The US also believes any resolution to the Taiwan situation must be peaceful. “That’s not going to change,” said Biden.
Speaking to reporters about the upcoming elections in Taiwan, Biden also said he “expects no interference” from China’s government.
Biden then reiterated the US would continue to heavily arm Taiwan – as a deterrent – he explained.
Xi warned Biden at the summit to stop arming Taiwan, saying “Stop arming Taiwan and support China’s peaceful reunification.”
No talk of Taiwan’s enormous and vital stranglehold on global microchip production was raised, and their carefully chosen words – vital to both sides domestic audiences – also strategically avoided the elephant in the room – “If Chinese soldiers do venture onto Taiwanese soil, what will America do?”.
After a quick coffee and croissant, Biden and Xi agreed to take action on the most-deadly trend threatening Americans today.
Last year more than 107,000 Americans – nearly 300 a day – died from drug overdoses directly linked to Fentanyl. That’s five times the number of gun related homicides in America.
The drug is mass-manufactured in Chinese laboratories, shipped to the US and cut with cocaine, heroin, meth and other street drugs as well as being used to lace counterfeit prescription drugs.
Under the new agreement, China will go directly after specific chemical companies that make fentanyl source products.
“It’s going to save lives,” Biden said, adding how much he appreciated Xi’s “commitment” on this issue.
Biden also asked the Chinese President to use his influence to lean on Tehran to stop them escalating the conflict in Gaza and called on Xi to withhold military supplies and support to Moscow in its war with Ukraine. Time will tell if those requests are heeded.
So far, Biden had done most of the talking and much of the asking.
For action on Fentanyl, Iran and Russia, the Chinese President would surely want something in return.
Xi was in San Francisco to talk to Asian and Pacific leaders against a backdrop of economic slowdown in China. The vast nation has growing debt, is struggling to secure foreign investment, and with an aging population and hindered by COVID 19 flare ups is falling behind in the technology and innovation race.
Specifically, Xi wanted Biden to lift or lighten the sanctions and restrictions on export allowing new technology to kickstart China’s economy.
Chinese officials claimed the economic sanctions were “stifling China’s technological progress as a move to contain China’s development and deprive the Chinese people.”
With one eye on businesses and voters in key tech-states like California, Texas and Florida, Biden is unlikely to waive the restrictions on the export of high technology to China while US companies still fear their innovation is being reverse engineered, global copyrights are flaunted, and ‘commercial strengths’ stolen by Chinese state entities.
But some ground was ceded shortly after the meeting when the fabulously-named ‘Chinese Ministry of Public Security’s Institute of Forensic Science’ was removed from the list of agencies under the trade sanction – apparently so they can cooperate more closely to deliver that promise to clamp down on the Fentanyl manufacturing businesses.
You take a little, you give a little.
The meeting ended. The two President’s relaxed, the advisers and diplomats congratulated themselves, the hard yards had been fought over and relations were starting to thaw.
Then Biden called Xi a ‘dictator’ and the Chinese were outraged.
See you next year.