Making sense of Xi-Biden meeting in Bali: Scholars in China want Beijing to Reassess US Strategy
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 21 Nov , 2022

Biden’s changed rhetoric in Bali did indeed surprise the world – including China. An editorial in the Financial Times explains the US president’s pledge in Bali to “manage China” as a mere change in tactics. In China, most commentators have described the prospects of China-US “charting the right course” post-Bali,as less than optimistic. An influential Chinese scholar of US affairs, claims the Xi-Biden first in-person meeting was “ineffective” and that continuing decline in the relationship is inevitable. On the other hand, in a more hard-hitting tone, a leftist Chinese strategic affairs commentator has urged Beijing to reconsider China’s US strategy. 

Unlike in the global and the US media, which for days carried numerous op-eds, expert analyses, and commentaries speculating on the Biden-Xi first in-person face-to-face in Bali, for reasons too well-known to all, one found very little on the subject in the Chinese media. However, following the Xi-Biden three hours and twelve minutes-long meeting on the beautiful Indonesian island on November 14, there has been a flood of writings by China’s commentators. Many Chinese commentators made particular mention of the simultaneous and not consecutive interpretation – providing the leaders more time for discussion – used during the “crucial” meeting which encompassed a wide range of bilateral, regional, and global issues. Again, as was particularly highlighted in a section of the western global media, in China no particular mention was made of Biden not resorting to warmongering rhetoric in Bali.

Generally speaking, Chinese public opinion about the US and Sino-US relations is divided intoqinmeipai, and fanmeipai, or “pro-America” and “anti-America” factions respectively. Alternatively, the two rival camps are also defined as the liberals and leftists. Though there is a third school of thought also, known as the nationalists. But the nationalists switch camps according to the issue at hand. For example, one finds a lot of overlap between the two groups on the Russian-Ukraine crisis and on economic globalization. Furthermore, despite Biden having told Xi there would be no “new cold war” between China and the US and that “he believed” China had no immediate plan to invade Taiwan, most commentators in China have concluded, “the US will not change its ways.”

China must stabilize relations with the US 

The first of the three factions may also be loosely defined as the centrist or pro-establishment Chinese point of view, which the leftists sometimes criticize or attack as qinmeior “pro-US.” One easy way to identify this group is that their language, tone, and attitude are generally “neutral” or non-aggressive toward the US. This group puts stress on stabilizing relations between China and the United States. Or, in other words, they are also called those inclined to uphold the “status quo” or non-confrontationist views. Leading foreign affairs think tanks, mostly located inside the international and strategic affairs institutes in well-known universities fall under this category. A couple of research institutes in Shanghai and Beijing are also considered to belong to this faction.

Politically speaking, scholars and researchers representing this view strongly believe the country’s development trajectory during the past four decades has helped China gradually move toward integrating with the global liberal economic order. More importantly, according to this view, the increasing prosperity caused by the market reform economic policies has resulted in establishing a politically liberal and relatively relaxed environment for the urban intelligentsia. For example, on the specific question of whether a weak or strong America is beneficial for China, Professor ShenDingli replied saying “today we [China] need an America which is neither weak nor strong. While a weak America will not be able to bully us, a strong America will help China, which is growing strong,and develop more peacefully and comfortably while not being bullied. A weak US may be better for China [for reunification with Taiwan] but may be bad for a rising China.”

The ball is now in the US court 

Many Chinese scholars and freelance foreign affairs commentators uphold the view that as the US is in continuous decline and China is rising, this is an excellent opportunity for Beijing to “overcome” America. It is this belief, which is alien to many in the West, which also explains why most Chinese media outlets have highlighted the fact that the Bali meeting was not only requested by the United States but that Biden came with “changed” rhetoric. Further, the Chinese media also extensively reported President Biden had been asking for a face-to-face meeting with President Xi for more than one year now but Beijing did not respond to the request.

A recent piece by Chen Feng, a popular freelance foreign and current affairs columnist, attracted over 500,000 visitors within twenty-four hours of his write-up on the Xi-Biden talks in Bali. Titled “At the G20 Biden quietly admitted..,” the article noted that the two leaders meeting in Bali is being viewed as a “turning point in Sino-US relations,” but this meeting is more meaningful to the US and not so important to China. “After the Bali summit, the US will not only not change its ways, it will continue to act as a demon,” Chen Feng wrote. Jin Canrong, an IR professor from Beijing’s Renmin University echoing Chen Feng’s views said,the overall thinking of the US remains unchanged and Sino-US relations are still defined by competition.

Jin acknowledged that both Xi and Biden emerged stronger from a major domestic political event respectivelywhen they met in Bali.“But Biden is fully aware that the United States does not have a 100 % chance of winning in a real conflict with China,” he quipped. A similar positive tone was reflected in the Global Times commentary a day after the bilateral meeting on the sidelines in Bali. Remember, the English language semi-official Chinese daily is known in the international press for its “nationalist, hawkish” position on China’s foreign policy in general and on Sino-US relations in particular. Citing the official Xinhua news agency, the Global Times hailed the outcome of the Xi-Biden summit as timely as the world seeks more certainty and injects a certain degree of positivity into troubled China-US bilateral relations.

Time for China to reconsider the US imperial strategy 

Dismissing the above think tank and media assessments as status quo and pro-establishment views, the fanmeipai – mainly comprising of the leftists, has been unsparingly and disdainfully critical of the “Cold War warrior” Biden and the US hegemony. Interestingly, the frequency and intensity of the use of terms such as “US imperialist strategy” and “US hegemony” reflected in the leftist discourse on China’s foreign policy have been increasing in recent years, especially since the trade war unleashed under President Trump.

In a recent article, a well-known commentator who is widely popular among a wide range of leftist digital platforms, Zhang Zhikun, severely criticsvarious “pro-US” Chinese think tanks, mainstream media, and political elite for failing to objectively evaluate and assess outstanding issues, particularly in the Sino-US relations, and how US-China “strategic competition” will unfold in the coming years. The article laments these experts for casually treating the US strategic challenges targeting China such as the Obama-Hilary Clinton initiated “Asia Pivot Policy” and the “Indo-Pacific strategy” first carried out by the Trump administration and which is now an integral component of US security strategy under the Biden administration.

Additionally, the leftists in China further reject the “pro-US” thinking on the grounds that such views fail to comprehend the ideological forces driving the US strategy to safeguard its global hegemony. The leftist foreign policy discourse in China lays emphasis on the following factors in highlighting the failure of the so-called pundits to politically correctly analyze the US hegemonic strategy. First, they underestimate the determination of the imperialist US strategy to contain China and instead, pin hopes on a sudden turnaround or transformation in the US attitude toward China; second, they underestimate the strategic flexibility of the US hegemony to encircle and suppress China; third, they grossly underestimate the insidious and cunning deception of the US hegemonic strategy and they hope these contradictions can be resolved by reaching out to America (aka through compromise).

To sum up, it is important to understand, all three mutually contesting rival Chinese viewpoints pertaining to China’s foreign policy discourse on Sino-US relations uphold the spirit of the work report presented by general secretary Xi at the 20th CPC party congress. It is therefore pertinent to refer to the Financial Times editorial which is an attempt to explain what did Biden mean when he pledged in Bali to “manage” the economic war with China? According to the FT edit, what Biden meant was that “further decoupling with China was inevitable.”No wonder, a well-known leftist scholar,in a commentary evaluating the Bali meeting, while urging the CPC leadership to reconsider China’s US policy commented: “Taiwan or no Taiwan issue, the US regards China as a strategic competitor because China is the biggest obstacle as well as the threat to its [the US] hegemony.”

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Hemant Adlakha

is professor of Chinese, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. He is also vice chairperson and an Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), Delhi.

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