Bali G20: Why Xi and Biden are Unlikely to ‘Walk and Chew Gum Together’

Bali G20: Why Xi and Biden are Unlikely to ‘Walk and Chew Gum Together’

“If you must play, decide upon three things at the start: the rules of the game, the stakes, and the quitting time”    –   A Chinese proverb

The seventeenth meeting of the Group of Twenty (G20) countries’ leaders is being held in Indonesia’s Bali this week on the 15th and 16th. Several G20 heads of state and government have confirmed their presence in Bali, including US President Joe Biden and Chinese Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping. Russian President Vladimir Putin will not attend. It is pertinent to remember that, at the G20 leaders’ summit in Rome back in October 2021, Xi was absent, depriving Biden of the opportunity for a meeting between the two leaders – and it was Biden’s first G20 summit as the US president. As reported, Biden not only could not hide his annoyance, but he publicly ridiculed Xi, saying “It’s been a big mistake, quite frankly, for China not showing up.”

However, the world’s attention to the upcoming G20 summit will be focused on this one very important bilateral summit meeting occurring on the sidelines in Bali: the first Biden-Xi face-to-face meeting. Putin’s absence is largely inconsequential; Ukrainian President Zelensky had already declared “count me out if Putin is going,” and the US’s top security official, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby, categorically stated on October 29 that “President Biden has no intention to sit down with Vladimir Putin” in Bali.

But our main focus is on the Biden-Xi meeting in Bali. How likely is it that the two leaders will keep the spirit of diplomacy alive? How likely are the two leaders to inject life into a big room where leaders from nineteen countries (plus the EU) are going to be confined together for at least thirty-six hours? We can’t be sure. What we can be sure about is that the key to a successful outcome to the China-US leaders facing one another at the negotiating table in the beautiful, picturesque surroundings of Bali Island is more in the hands of President Biden than his Chinese counterpart. Quite remarkably, the island is also called the Island of Gods and is famous for its breathtaking scenery which exudes peace and serenity. Bali is more than a place. Travel brochures introduce the island as paradise and say “it is a mood, an inspiration, a tropical state of mind.” The air in Bali is intoxicating – it will calm Biden and Xi, both of whom have been firing salvos at each other lately.

Yet, finding peace and serenity at their meeting will be a tall order. On one hand, Xi was reported to be highly irked by the US House Speaker’s recent Taiwan visit. On the other hand, President Biden, too, was said to be extremely annoyed by Beijing’s highly provocative military drill around Taiwan that lasted for several days in response to Nancy Pelosi’s presence on the self-ruled island nation, which mainland China claims is its inseparable part.

If current US-China relations are any indicator, the chances of the two leaders coming out of their face-to-face first in-person meeting having successfully achieved a détente are next to zero. The last time a US president traveled to the Chinese capital for a summit meeting was in November 2017. Xi’s previous state visit to the US was in September 2015. Though Xi and Trump did meet three years ago on the sidelines of the G20 leader’s summit in Osaka, Japan, the Osaka head-to-head meeting was a non-starter from the very beginning. The Trump-initiated trade war against China was already a year old. The Osaka “trade talks” between the two leaders, as they were then called, were taking place amid the threat of additional tariffs on $300 billion worth of Chinese goods imported into the United States. Moreover, the Chinese were indignant by the fact that in the run-up to the Osaka one-to-one meeting Trump’s demeaning statements were continuously “humiliating” Beijing and had turned trade talks into a “spectator sport.” According to one commentator, the high-stakes Xi-Trump trade talks in Osaka were no longer seen as just about dollars and cents, but about image and pride. Back then, the Western media were not expecting the Xi-Trump meeting to lead to a positive outcome. Neither was China. A Chinese foreign ministry official had said at the time: “The only thing we ask the US to do is to respect us. If bullied, China will not simply kneel before the US.”

As mentioned, next week’s scheduled G20 leaders’ summit in Bali is being held under extraordinary circumstances – the ongoing Ukraine war on one hand, and escalating tensions between the US and China on the other. Interestingly, the Bali summit in several ways will test Biden’s diplomatic skills. Do not forget, Biden is perhaps the only world leader to have been watching and, to a great extent, steering US foreign affairs, if not foreign policy, for over five decades. When Biden was first elected to the US Senate in 1972, he was only 30 years of age. Xi, by contrast, was then an 18-year-old “boy” struggling to survive the Cultural Revolution in rural China. Biden first visited China in 1979 and met with then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. Biden is famous in the US for being among a few of the “powerbrokers” who cultivated a rather prolonged cordial relationship with China’s communist leaders. Biden recently claimed to have flown together with Xi Jinping for over 17,000 miles. Yet Biden, as someone who very closely observed Nixon opening up the doors of diplomacy between Beijing and Washington, has so far neither succeeded in putting a foot in China nor in shaking hands with the Chinese president since he became President of the United States.

When he took office in January 2021, most Americans and everyone in Beijing were expecting, given his long years of experience on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and over two decades of his dealings with the foreign ministry mandarins in Beijing, that Biden would not find it difficult to craft a China policy relying more on diplomacy than on “threats and bluster.” This was particularly so as, when Biden took office, the US-China relationship was fraught with uncertainties and a total lack of mutual trust. But the past twenty-two months have more than confirmed Biden’s “leaning on one side,” meaning his administration has actually pursued a harder line than his predecessor toward Beijing, and on all fronts. Critics of Biden’s China policy are not wrong in pointing out that his administration has failed to come up with a single positive idea for engaging Beijing. It is only fair to give credit to President Xi for not giving up. Recall when Xi made the statement: “We have a thousand reasons to make the China-US relationship a success, and none whatsoever to wreck it.” President Biden has yet to match the comment.

Though Xi Jinping can’t be said to be lacking in patience, he can’t go on waiting forever. In the work report to the 20th CPC National Congress last month, President Xi’s message to President Biden was loud and clear: if you want us to walk and chew gum together, first show me you are sincere. By approving the report, the CPC fully endorsed its General Secretary’s assessment that the deteriorating trend in China-US relations isn’t going to reverse anytime soon. And yet, the US government has only further intensified a conflict-flavored atmosphere in recent days. The Taiwan Policy Act, the US government chip and semiconductor embargo, and the US National Security Strategy are how the US has responded to President Xi’s renewed call at the end of October, saying Beijing was willing to work with Washington. Even if the two leaders suddenly decided to shake hands in Bali for the optics, rest assured they will not be chewing gum together anytime soon.


About the Author

Hemant Adlakha is a professor of Chinese at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is also vice chairperson and honorary fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi (India).

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