Biden vs Xi: who has the upper hand for their summit?

  • The US president is reviving American leadership abroad and has pushed through economic stimulus
  • But his Chinese counterpart has cemented his position at home and has had a more consistent approach to the US, observers say

It was a sweet-tempered moment in China-US relations.

In Los Angeles in 2012, then Chinese vice-president Xi Jinping sampled chocolate-covered macadamia nuts at a meeting with his opposite number Joe Biden.

It was part of a five-day US trip, at the end of which Biden publicly praised Xi for his stamina, his interest in the United States and his desire to meet American people.

In just under a decade, both men have risen to become the leaders of their countries but bilateral relations could not be more different.

Over the past few years, the two powers have traded sanctions, military messaging, tariffs and finger-pointing over everything from climate commitments to handling of the global pandemic.

Xi and Biden will face each other again early next week, with each seeking to use their strengths as they arm-wrestle for advantage.

But who will go into the talks with the upper hand?

At home and abroad

Biden will be at the talks fresh off a trip to Europe to reassert the United States’ global leadership, making stops for the Group of 20 summit in Rome and the UN climate conference in Glasgow.

The US president called out his Chinese counterpart for his absence from both meetings.

Xi was known for his heavy international travel schedule but has not left China since the start of the global pandemic last year and so has not been able to exert diplomatic influence in person.

China is also coming under greater criticism from abroad on trade, human rights and Taiwan.

However, Xi’s position within China has never been stronger.

At a gathering of the Communist Party’s elite in Beijing last week, Xi gained further endorsement of his rule with the passage of a resolution paying tribute to the country’s path under Xi’s leadership.

The resolution paves the way for his endorsement next autumn for a third term as the party’s leader, the first in China in more than 20 years.

But just 10 months into his first term, Biden is under pressure at home, with less than resounding results for Democrats in a number of gubernatorial and mayoral races last week.

“The recent election results are not very good for the Democratic Party,” said Pang Zhongying, an international relations specialist at Ocean University of China. “As Xi’s status is just consolidated, Biden is facing pressure for the upcoming midterm elections in the US.”

Lu Xiang, an expert on US affairs with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a think tank affiliated with China’s central government, said polls in the US also suggested that public support for Biden was falling.

In a CNN survey published last week, 58 per cent of respondents agreed that Biden was not paying attention to the country’s most important issues. And the share of respondents strongly approving of the US president’s performance was just 15 per cent, down from 34 per cent in April.

Lu argued that Xi had an edge in domestic support.

“Internationally, democratic alliances and shared values just are not what the American people are mostly concerned about. The CNN polls show that he’s not working on the right things,” he said.

Lu said China had a consistent US policy, and that consistency was a strength.

“In this sense, strength doesn’t come from the number of ships or planes being built, and in terms of consistency and persistence, China has more strength.”

Evenly split

Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Centre’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, a think tank based in Washington, said neither side was likely to have the upper hand during the meeting.

“Xi will be riding high at home after this week’s rewrite of party history, but his treatment of Xinjiang and Hong Kong and China’s regressive inward turn have damaged his international standing,” he said.

Daly added that while Biden faced a divided country back home, he was welcomed more as a global leader than Xi and former US president Donald Trump.

“It’s probably just as well that neither man will deal from a clear position of strength,” he said. “Neither Biden nor Xi seems to be reconsidering his nations’ interests or strategies in advance of the summit. Each seems, rather, to be searching for a formula that will convince the other to accept his policies on his own terms.”

Neither side is likely to acknowledge the other has a position of strength, but as Biden seeks to reestablish the US’ global leadership role, Washington is playing up the benefits that alliances can bring, according to Pang.

“The United States has its advantage in its alliance system, like the democracy summit coming up next week,” he said. “Now they have Aukus, on top of Nato and them assuming leadership in the G7 and G20 again.”

In early December, Biden is expected to host the first of two Summits for Democracy, bringing together leaders from government, civil society and the private sector.

One big issue will be whether Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen will be invited to take part.

Beijing has already called the summit an attempt by Washington to create division along ideological lines.

The new Aukus alliance, which was set up between the US, Britain and Australia, has also angered Beijing, which called it an Anglo-Saxon “military small circle” dominated by “a cold war mentality”.

Hawk vs dove

Biden is considered to be more of a dove than Xi, whose stature as a risk-taking hawk was boosted by last week’s party resolution, according to Dimitar Gueorguiev, an assistant professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

Gueorguiev said that put the US leader at a strategic disadvantage in terms of the options could bring to the talks.

“The moment [Biden] de-emphasises the China threat, then suddenly he’s a pacifist or he’s an apologist and he’s going to get drawn through the mud by the Rubios and the Cruzes out there,” he said, referring to US Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who frequently play up the threat that China poses to the US.

“People tend to see compromises from hawks as being more credible or better deals than compromises from doves.

“And so as they’re kind of experimenting with this softer tone in the dialogue. The Biden administration actually has a harder time at it because they have to be careful not to look like they’re being soft on China.”

It’s the economy

But with the US economy picking up again, Biden could have some “marginal advantage”, said Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing.

“The issue with our side is we are not as well off financially,” Shi said. “The US got their US$1.9 trillion stimulus package long ago and passed another US$1.2 trillion infrastructure package. But it seems China doesn’t have the same sort of financial tools, and its fiscal capacity and financial risks have grown significantly worse.”

Economic growth in China slowed in the third quarter to 4.9 per cent from a year earlier, missing market expectations of 5 per cent growth and well below the 7.9 per cent gain seen in the second quarter, stoking fears of further economic problems down the road.

Fears about systemic financial risks still loom large as Evergrande, its second largest property developer by sales, faces US$366 million in interest payments before the end of the year – even after narrowly averting default on overdue coupons.

Author: Jun Mai, SCMP

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