Leaders meet for first time in a year in effort to save crumbling relations between global giants
Two global giants cleared a relatively modest bar in their troubled relationship this week: China and the U.S. had a cordial summit.
This is not to be scoffed at. These two superpowers affect virtually every major international issue, be it economic, military or environmental.
And their relationship became downright dysfunctional this year, with high-level contacts suspended amid escalating warlike murmurs.
Now presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping have met for the first time since the spy-balloon incident, and they walked away offering positive reviews.
After a four-hour meeting in San Francisco on Wednesday, Biden summed it up as "some of the most constructive and productive discussions we've had."
China's foreign ministry referred to the discussions as: "fruitful," "good," "in-depth," a possible "new starting point," a "blueprint" for future ties, and having substantive outcomes.
The countries appear to have stabilized their relationship at a critical moment: 2024 could prove to be a rocky year, with nationalistic election rhetoric in both Taiwan and the U.S.
When it came to substantive outcomes, the leaders delivered on some of the ones anticipated for the meeting, promising to resume communications between their militaries to limit the risk of deadly misunderstandings, and to co-operate on fentanyl crackdowns.
"It's going to save lives," Biden said of the latter.
Xi even dangled the ultimate symbol of Chinese soft-power diplomacy: He hinted that China could resume sending pandas to the U.S.
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Entering the meeting, some China-watchers advised that Beijing's state media outlets would reflect the message Xi will take home to his government officials.
The verdict from the state propaganda organs: Rather buoyant.
Photos of Biden and Xi smiling together led major Mandarin-language news sites.
Even in the normally hawkish Global Times, the lead headline was: "Xi's visit to San Francisco injects stability, fosters people exchanges."
Next comes the reality check.
Participants on a Washington think-tank panel Thursday shared the same basic takeaway: This was a good meeting, not a game-changer.
"It's not a reset in terms of co-operation," former White House official Victor Cha said in the discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
A colleague likened it to a temporary pause button in an escalating rivalry.
Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA and intelligence official, said different fears had compelled each country to holster the heated rhetoric — for the U.S., escalating instability around the world, and for China, its slowing economy.
This meeting halted the deterioration, she said — "until the next crisis."
It remains an open guess, said a third participant, as to just how substantive these announcements might prove to be.
For example: Who will China task with its crackdown on fentanyl exports? Will it be powerful Chinese officials with a law-enforcement role and the ability to arrest people — or not?
"You want guys with real clout," said Dennis Wilder, a former White House and CIA official.
"If it's just another talkfest, it's unacceptable."
Worrying signs persist
As for the resumption of military contacts, he compared it to "half a loaf," with some programs restarting, but not the highest-level dialogue between military strategists.
Even during the summit, there were several reminders of how fragile any detente remains, and how easily it all could crack.
An ad-libbed remark by Biden got the most attention. A reporter asked if he would still refer to Xi as a dictator and the U.S. president responded: "Well, look, he is."
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Less noticed were several other trouble spots flaring elsewhere.
A U.S. congressional committee released a report on an illegal biolab in California that contained numerous pathogens and other biological and chemical substances; it was allegedly run by a Chinese national who was in the U.S. illegally and was recently arrested.
Meanwhile, there was a reminder of the political risk in working with China. It came in an effort to name and shame U.S. business leaders who attended a swanky dinner with Xi.
A U.S. congressional committee published a list of attendees, and the committee chair slammed them.
"How does that conversation [with Xi] go? 'This Sauvignon blanc is really nice … congrats on crushing civil society in Hong Kong,'" quipped lawmaker Mike Gallagher.
China preparing for war, report warns
The most sobering note, however, came in a newly released annual report from a U.S. federal agency with a stark warning: China is preparing for war.
The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission cited escalating rhetoric from Xi; instructions to his military to be ready for combat; new conscription and reservist laws allowing faster mobilization; a 7.2 per cent increase in defence spending; upgraded air-raid shelters; a new wartime emergency hospital across the strait from Taiwan; and a plan to grow more grain, in case conflict halts foreign imports.
In the view of Elbridge Colby, a well-known American defence strategist and China hawk, that is the prevailing trendline — not the happy talk in San Francisco.
"I'm all in favour of 'jaw-jaw is better than war-war,' as Winston Churchill said," Colby, a military strategist during the Trump administration, told CBC News. "[But] fundamentally the relationship will remain on, at best, a confrontational trajectory. And possibly a conflictual [one], God forbid. …
"I don't think this relationship is going to be mended."
Colby fears a scenario that could alter the course of the 21st century, to the detriment of the U.S. and its allies: China invades Taiwan; conquers it; gains control of shipping lanes, and of high-tech industry based in Taiwan; and becomes the world's dominant superpower, economic and military, of our century.
He's alarmed that the U.S. is not even close to taking the necessary steps to deter China from launching such an invasion.
For example, China now has far more naval ships than the U.S. — and it's building them faster. By comparison, Colby says, U.S. military procurement remains hopelessly sluggish.
Xi: No war from us
In San Francisco, the leaders expressed hope for peace.
Biden cited the overriding long-term stakes of this meeting: "We have to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict."
For his part, Xi said China has no intention of fighting a war, either a cold war or a hot war. Despite their historical tensions, he said the giants must coexist.
"Planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed," Xi said. "We shoulder heavy responsibilities — for the two peoples, for the world, and for history."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.
Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca