The Xi-Biden Tête-à-Tête
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 23 Nov , 2023

The outcome of the November 15 meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and the POTUS Joe Biden on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco was on expected lines; nothing tangible to indicate a thaw in the China-US relations beyond the smiles of the two leaders. Bilateral relations remain low although Biden hailed the meeting as successful because of two agreements; curbing the production of Fentanyl and US-China military-to-military communications restored.

The US wanted to reopen military-to-military dialogue with China since a long time, which China shut after the US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August 2022. Shooting down of a Chinese spy balloon (weather balloon as per China) by American F-22 Raptors in February 2023 soured relations further. US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin was snubbed when he tried contacting his Chinese counterpart.

The US perhaps sees military dialogue would help keep tabs on Chinese intentionstowards Taiwan although China would never discuss Taiwan which it considers part of China. As for Fentanyl production, drug smuggling is part of China’s ‘unrestricted warfare’ which will continue, although denied vehemently, notwithstanding US ‘monitoring’, as was the case of Chinese promises made in 2016 and 2018. 

The hollowness of the meeting was covered up with Biden calling the sessions “some of the most constructive and productive discussions we’ve had” and Xi saying “Planet Earth is big enough for both superpowers”. Both leaders perhaps wanted to look deeper into the other’s brain in the face to face meeting. The constructive part was the US and China pledging climate cooperation “before” the Xi-Biden meeting.

Xi and Biden failed to reach any common ground on: Taiwan – with next presidential elections slated for January 13, 2024; North Korea’s aggressive posturing; limiting Iranian influence; creating a forum to limit artificial intelligence (AI) in relation to autonomous weapons systems and nuclear arsenals. Beijing wants the US to lift export restrictions for semiconductors which affects its weapon development surveillance tools, and AI systems. But Biden has bluntly refused to do so. It is no surprise that no joint statement or formal cooperation declaration was issued.  Biden’s frustration was visible when after the meeting he called Xi an effective “dictator”.

It would not be wrong to say that Xi himself represents China’s “deep state”, whereas, Biden must play by the US “deep state” centered on the American arms, oil and pharma lobbies. The sacking of Chinese ministers and military officials has helped Xi consolidate more power notwithstanding the opposite rhetoric in foreign media.Xi knows why American and European delegations are visiting Beijing to consolidate economic ties. He also knows that the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) to counter China’s trade in the Indo-Pacific is on weak ground.

Witness Xi’s remarks during the dinner on the sidelines of the APEC summit that China has “not provoked a conflict or war, or occupied a single inch of foreign land”. There are two aspects to this ludicrous statement. First, the Middle Kingdom Syndrome – that everything under the Sun belongs to China. Second, when governments of countries like India, Nepal and Bhutan have denied Chinese territorial encroachments during Xi’s regime, why would he not say so publicly?

Xi is happy giving a few more pandas for Americans to cuddle in their zoos at a time when US policy makers are weighed down with two raging wars in Ukraine and Gaza, and the US Congress is busy discussing technology, trade and Taiwan. Russia is winning in Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas War is showing signs of expanding into a larger regional conflict. Xi would be calculating how the US would cope with another geopolitical crisis when China invades Taiwan, which is 1/16th the size of Ukraine, but would have repercussions throughout the Indo-Pacific.

China has been encircling Taiwan from all directions and undertaking live firing and fighter jets minutes in striking distance. US FONOP patrols in Western Pacific and Taiwan Straits has neither deterred China nor North Korea. Chinese fighter jets have been brazenly buzzing American aircraft. In addition to firing lasers at US aircraft and ships. Earlier, China had also fired lasers at US aircraft from the PLA base in Djibouti. PLA aircraft and ships are periodically intruding into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone and territorial waters in increasingly large numbers.

Speaking at a fundraising event before his meeting with Xi, Biden said, “President Xi is another example of how reestablishing American leadership in the world is taking hold. They’ve got real problems“. This appears to be a case of self aggrandizement, not taking into account Xi’s astuteness and his plans to take China beyond the US, and what about Taiwan? Biden’s meeting with Xi has certainly not removed China and the US from the precipice of conflict.

Deteriorating China-US economic ties in the wake of US sanctions has also increased Chinese focus on Taiwan; making the geopolitical calculus around Taiwan’s fate more stark. Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu has said, “We understand that the result of a war with China is going to be disastrous for Taiwan. And also, that it would have global consequences. But at the same time, we also understand that one of the best ways, other than not provoking, when dealing with a big bully is to deter.”

But how to deter China is the question, with the US going all out to maintain it’s perceived “uniplolar mastery of the world” using whatever means, fair or foul. Are US-Taiwan closer ties the deterrence? Ukraine also has close relations with the US plus personal ties between Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky and Biden, as well as his son Hunter. Yet, Ukraine is suffering massive destruction and colossal loss of life. Will this be the fate of Taiwan?

Chinese invasion of Taiwan and the US response naturally has been war-gamed umpteen times by the US, China, Taiwan, NATO and many others. However, many debatable questions remain unanswered. Can the US afford direct conflict with China, taking a cue from America’s war on Russia using Ukraine as the proxy? Is the US prepared to bear the consequences of direct conflict with China? Won’t it let Taiwanese fight it out like the Ukrainians? Will it attack Chinese assets encircling Taiwan or inside Taiwan or will it instigate Japan or other allies to do the firing while sitting on the fence? Will China hesitate to target US assistance coming to Taiwan once invasion begins – what will the US then do?

The general view is that while Taiwanese military, reserves and volunteers are fighting out the Chinese invaders, the US will hit the Chinese mainland and China will then target the US mainland. But will the US hit mainland China? Also, why would China hit Japan during the invasion of Taiwan unless US forces in Japan target Chinese assets? The US has always attacked countries that are militarily weaker. Wouldn’t attacking Russia or Chinalead to uncontrollable escalation?

American efforts to dialogue China for nuclear talks are passé because neither will the US reduce the number of its nukes nor will China. Russia has even withdrawn from the CTBT because the US never signed it. Voices from within the US of being prepared for nuclear war are naïve. Significantly, Russia has already placed nuclear-armed ICBMs in silos.

Activities around Taiwan may hot up next January in the run up to the presidential elections. The US would want to fan the anti-China sentiments while China would probably attempt to sabotage elections though cyber attacks and other means. Would China invade Taiwan, and when? That remains the million dollar question. Would Xi prefer to waittill the Israel-Hamas war conflagrates into a Middle East conflict?

Speaking to the executives of the APEC summit at San Francisco on November 16, Biden said, “We have real difference with China. We are going to continue to address them with smart policies and strong diplomacy.” That may be an understatement because US-China relations are at the lowest presently and military-to-military talks are no solution, as seen from the military-to-military talks between India and China. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergie Lavrov says, “All the adventurous forays of the USA outside its borders since the 1950s have not had a single positive outcome – that the Americans really brought good to the country or the region in whose internal affairs they interfered.” Xi’s success in physically integrating Taiwan into the Chinese mainland will be a strong signal of America’s sundown and the end of “Pax Americana”! But can the US save Taiwan from Chinese clutches ‘without’ destroying it?

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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

Lt Gen Prakash Katoch

is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army.

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