Xi’s China and Biden’s America: It feels like a cold war

During a trip to China more than a decade ago as vice president, Joe Biden delivered a speech honoring the United States as the wealthiest country ever. The United States, he said, is two and a half times richer than his home country.

That afternoon, when Mr. Biden met with his counterpart Xi Jinping for an intimate walk, security prevailed in the discussion. Mr. Xi complained that Washington had sent surveillance planes to spy on China, to which Mr. Biden replied that the flights would continue, which he would then tell US journalists.

Back then, such differences seemed relatively manageable, especially given the frequent meetings between officials from the two countries. Now that the gap between the rich and the poor has narrowed, the security challenges are more perilous, and communications are scarce.

As the country’s leaders, Biden and Xi are increasingly prone to collisions that threaten to lead to a new version of the Cold War, diplomats and analysts say. Military, economic and ideological tensions remain unchecked between the two powers. America’s allies in the Asia-Pacific region fear being squeezed out by Beijing, as China builds up its nuclear arsenal and competes with semiconductors.

And China, seeking to forge a coalition of autocratic regimes, is increasingly finding common ground with Russia, as Xi and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir V. Putin, will meet face-to-face later at the end. this week. Despite Russia’s defeats in its war with Ukraine over the past week, Beijing is unlikely to shy away from the relationship. It needs a strong partner in Moscow to push back against what it sees as American hegemony.

Meanwhile, Beijing and Washington are growing further apart. After Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan to express support for an autonomous democracy that China claims as its own, Beijing canceled three rounds of military talks and postponed another five on climate and international crime. Military discussions, while sporadic and often formulaic, are still seen as important in an increasingly risky environment, with American and Chinese ships often sailing dangerously close to each other. in the waters off China.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore said in a speech last month: “All around us, a storm is gathering. “US-China relations are deteriorating day by day, with unresolved issues, deep suspicions, and limited engagement between them. This is unlikely to improve anytime soon.”

Mr. Lee said he was concerned that “miscalculations and miscalculations” could easily make things worse.

Not so long ago, the climate was at least modestly better.

After Mr. Xi became China’s top leader, he was quickly received by President Barack Obama at a California estate. The Chinese leader visited four US cities in 2015, and Mr. Obama went to China. Their delegates convened regularly in each other’s capitals, and large delegations of top officials held annual forums.

There is even an opinion that too much talk produces too little action. At the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing in 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry spent an afternoon examining an exhibit on the wildlife trade in Africa. It was a time when China was building artificial islands in the South China Sea, on this issue, there was very little discussion.

Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi have spoken by phone only five times since early 2021. The lack of communication makes friction more dangerous, diplomats and analysts said.

“The lack of a sustained, private dialogue will hurt the family,” said Charles Kupchan, a member of the National Security Council in the Obama administration and professor of international relations at Georgetown University. increased stress. “Disagreements grow and mistrust builds.”

In a recent call, the two leaders agreed to set a date for a face-to-face meeting, which is likely to take place in November at a meeting of G20 leaders in Indonesia. Both are confirmed participants, along with Mr. Putin.

If it happens, it will be their first face-to-face conversation since Mr. Biden entered the White House. Mr. Xi met Mr. Putin earlier this year in Beijing and is expected to sit down with him this week in Uzbekistan, part of a broader tour that will be the Chinese leader’s first visit. States to foreign countries since the inception of the Convention. -19 pandemic.

Beijing and Washington try to downplay the metaphor of a new Cold War. But when each side moves to gain the upper hand, their actions often give the opposite impression.

In an article in Foreign Affairs this month, Cornell University professor Jessica Chen Weiss wrote that both sides “have engaged in a global struggle”.

Professor Weiss said in an email with deep distrust that fresh discussions are needed, though not necessarily the full range of contacts under the Obama administration. “Given the distrust of both sides, such discussions should not aim to create a new framework or slogan that each side will regard as a Trojan horse,” she said.

Different balance of power during the Cold War. The Soviet Union was never an economic competitor to the United States, and Washington could exploit its spat with China.

President Richard Nixon persuaded Mao Zedong to abandon his former Soviet ally and come to America. Nixon and Henry Kissinger, his national security adviser, used the new alignment to persuade the Soviet Union to join the protracted arms control negotiations during subsequent administrations.

Those negotiations are woven into summit meetings that allow leaders to meet with a specific agenda in hand and offer reassurances.

“Today our arms control program is gone, in fact it has changed,” said Jon Huntsman, who served as US ambassador to both China and Russia.

Mr. Huntsman said: Contact with the Soviet Union has never been as low as it is now with China. “The Chinese simply won’t participate,” he said. “Lights out. No.”

The United States is worried about what appears to be a rapid expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal. In July last year, nuclear experts at the Federation of American Scientists said there was clear evidence that China was building more than 100 bunkers in the western desert to launch nuclear missiles.

In a November phone call, Mr. Biden suggested to Mr. Xi that they should begin negotiations on “strategic stability”. Lyle Goldstein, Asia director of Defense Priorities, a think tank in Washington, said the phrase could include nuclear strategy and crisis management.

Asked about Mr. Biden’s offer at a press conference in mid-August, China’s ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, said that such negotiations could not take place until the United States resolved the issue. determine “the political foundation of our bilateral relationship,” that is, the future. of Taiwan.

The loss of the US and China in military discussions is perhaps the most worrying development.

Those meetings often go on for a long time, with Chinese officers reading prepared scenarios, Mr. Goldstein said. But sometimes the talks are very helpful, pushing the two sides to better understand, if not concrete solutions.

“I find our discussions respectful and collective,” said former commander of the Pacific Fleet, Adm. Scott H. Swift, who met his Chinese counterparts in 2016 and 2017, said when relations are warming. “As a result, we have been able to move beyond our rhetorical challenges and focus on reducing the possibility of unintended incidents at sea escalating to challenges that our respective leadership considered counterproductive.”

Admiral Swift said he emphasized principles known as the Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea, which sets out rules that Chinese and American ships can follow when traveling in close proximity to each other. .

In the current atmosphere, what interaction between the two countries is still tense, at best.

In a classic Cold War drama last month, the State Department in Beijing summoned the US ambassador, R. Nicholas Burns, to their office just as Ms. Pelosi landed in Taiwan.

Mr. Burns waited to make sure she landed. He then drove to the ministry, arriving a few minutes late.

“We had a difficult and contentious meeting,” Mr. Burns said. “I defend Speaker Pelosi’s right to visit Taiwan and say Beijing has overreacted and created an unnecessary crisis.”

Peter Baker contributed reporting.

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