Biden and Xi, Kerry and Xie: monologues, not dialogue
17 Nov 2021|

Yesterday’s virtual summit between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping followed two presidential telephone calls and last week’s joint declaration on enhanced climate action drafted by US climate envoy John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua.

The meeting’s outcome was underwhelming: vaguely reassuring but laden with warning bells for how both Biden and Xi see the result and think about what happens next.

The danger is that Biden thinks he’s achieved more than he has, and that Xi feels more empowered to continue on his current path. We’ll get signs on both in the weeks ahead.

Biden clearly intended to set the terms to compete intensely on a range of issues where US and Chinese interests clash—Taiwan, China’s military aggression in the South China Sea, human rights and the use of trade as a weapon against US allies.

Biden also wanted to map out where holding the advantage is important for national power and prosperity, like in high technology.

His administration has worked hard with allies and partners to create a unified assessment on this key issue. That was most clearly expressed in the June Brussels communiqué from the 30 NATO allies: ‘China’s stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security. We are concerned by those coercive policies which stand in contrast to the fundamental values enshrined in the Washington Treaty’ (which created NATO).

Biden told Xi he sees competition in these intense areas as needing ‘guard rails’ along with communication and engagement to limit the risks of escalation. This is a worthy goal. There’s no direct phone line between the US and China for crisis contact and, and even if there was, Xi has empowered no one to answer it whose words would matter.

In their September phone call, Biden told Xi: ‘It seems to me our responsibility as leaders of China and the US is to ensure that our competition between our countries does not veer into conflict, whether intended or unintended.’

At the same time, the Biden administration has sought to cooperate with Beijing on key global challenges where collective action is deeply desirable, notably pandemic control and climate change. This is significant for Biden’s base and fits with much of his domestic economic program, to the extent he can get it through Congress.

Xi went to the summit with equally clear intent. He bases his policy towards the US on the assessment that its power is waning as China’s grows. He sees the current decade as a perhaps unique window of opportunity because the US and its partners are preparing to raise the political and military costs to Beijing of conflict over Taiwan, and because China has entered a period of demographic decline and slowing growth.

At the summit, Xi continued his line that the US must make compromises to get the relationship ‘back on track’.

He declared that he was ready to ‘work with President Biden to build consensus and take active steps to move China–US relations forward in a positive direction’, also using the Beijing boilerplate language of ‘mutual respect’.

Chinese state media reports of earlier discussions didn’t mention US concerns over Chinese intimidation of Taiwan, human rights and Xinjiang, or economic coercion of US allies. Instead, state media represents Biden’s statements on Taiwan as accepting a ‘one China’ policy, without noting the fundamental differences between Beijing’s version of this and the US’s.

The content of the six-page summit release from China’s foreign ministry is unchanged from speeches Xi delivered in 2017 and at the Chinese Communist Party’s centenary celebration, despite the marked changes in China’s external environment. It reads like Xi was giving Biden a rousing lecture about the path he needs to take to benefit from Xi’s leadership, just as he repeatedly tells the Chinese people to do.

Xi’s talking, not listening. He raises not a glimmer of a possibility of Beijing making policy or behavioural change on any of the difficult issues in the US–China relationship: any change must come from Biden as the price of engagement.

Xi sees the Biden meeting and phone calls as global recognition of China as a great power, at least equal in status to the US, and as a means of achieving concessions from. He conveys his overarching narrative that engaging with China is ‘win–win’ or ‘not zero sum’ cooperation, while underlining that he has no intention of shifting where Beijing’s ‘core interests’ are involved. We hear about ‘managing differences’ and ‘showing mutual respect’, but there’s no indication he sees any need to reciprocate for US compromises or policy moves benefiting Beijing.

This words–action gap has characterised Beijing’s international commitments under Xi. Whether at this summit, the World Trade Organization or the United Nations, on Covid-19, on state-owned enterprises or on the militarisation of the South China Sea, in each case, Xi has authorised officials to commit to ‘best efforts’, to consider future actions to address outstanding issues, or to promise cooperation and openness—or he’s used this approach himself. But these future promises have led to little.

In almost all of the above areas, as well as on Hong Kong, Xi has simply broken his word without suffering embarrassment or adverse consequences.

Here’s ideology and policy at work. International engagement with Chinese socialist characteristics in the ‘new era of Xi Jinping thought’ was the foundation for the Xi–Biden summit and will remain for future engagements.

On climate change, Biden worked Congress hard to be able to take new commitments to Glasgow that Kerry clearly used in negotiating with Xie. Xi didn’t see a need to turn up at Glasgow, and after a splash globally about not building more coal-fired power stations outside China, he noted that it would continue to build coal-fired power stations for its domestic needs.

China’s commitment to ‘net zero’ emissions by 2060, while late, is welcome. It sees value in acting on renewable energy for its economy and as a source of technological and economic power, so we can expect actions here—with the US and the rest of the world finding out about them as they unfold, not because of clever US diplomacy and engagement.

The Kerry–Xie negotiations that resulted in the joint climate declaration unveiled to a surprised COP26 falls into a familiar pattern of Beijing’s statecraft.

Putting aside whether a two-nation deal that blindsides the international gathering is good for collective action, it’s worth examining what each committed to. It looks like neediness from the Biden administration—and certainly Kerry—to achieve a deal. That’s predominantly bad news, for both climate action and strategic stability.

The declaration begins well saying the US and China ‘recognize the seriousness and urgency of the climate crisis’. They’re committed to tackling it through their respective accelerated actions in the critical decade of the 2020s and ‘committed to pursuing such efforts, including by taking enhanced climate actions that raise ambition in the 2020s’. It has clear commitments from the US, and blurry words from China on enhanced actions.

The US announced a methane emissions reduction action plan it had worked on with the EU but which is at least an actual plan. China said it ‘intends to develop a comprehensive and ambitious National Action Plan on methane’ and would join the US in convening a meeting in 2022 to focus on the specifics of enhancing measurement and mitigation of methane.

The US has committed to reaching 100% carbon-pollution-free electricity by 2035. China will phase down coal consumption during the 15th five-year plan and make ‘best efforts’ to accelerate this work.

Kerry gave China the status of a cooperating partner on climate change at a price to the US but no price to China. That gives Xi grounds to expect that Biden will operate the same way in issues beyond climate change, now that the positive ‘atmospherics’ of this first summit have set the scene.

The warning bells come from how these US–China interactions create the prospect of a ‘G2’ setting the terms for how the broader international community then engages on multiple issues.

This is the new type of great-power relations Xi offered Barack Obama when he was president, and Obama was smart not to accept. Here a strengthened China is offering it again. If Biden thinks he’s found a better way to work with his old friend Xi than Obama—or Donald Trump—did, it should worry us all.

The Kerry–Xie deal is bad news for multilateralism and a disturbing sign that parts of the US administration do not grasp the multiplier effect the US gains from working with its allies and partners.

It’s a contrast to Biden at the NATO summit and G7-plus, let alone his announcing AUKUS, and we have to stop it becoming contagious to broader US China policy.

The net effect of the summit is that both leaders expressed their carefully prepared, consistent messages and they’ve established a less fraught atmosphere between them, while leaving all the underlying stark differences and tensions in place.

If Xi puts the summit conversation and the Kerry–Xie deal together and concludes it all adds up to consequence-free pursuit of everything he’s engaged on—because Biden, like Kerry, is needier than him—we’re in for a troubled time and increasingly disappointing US–China summits.

So, whether the motivation is addressing climate change or deterring China from conflict, or both, may Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan, not John Kerry, be Biden’s primary implementers, and the ones briefing him on what to do next.