The much-anticipated meeting between US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, ended on a reassuring note although President Biden’s comment at a press conference after the meeting that he still considers Xi a “dictator” helped put the relationship in perspective and show the extent to which the two most powerful nations in the world differ in their worldview. The meeting was not expected to break new ground on points of bilateral tensions, but the four-hour meeting did suggest a willingness on the part of Beijing to step back and reassess its relations with Washington with the intent to bridge the widening gap between them. For the global economy yet to recover from the pandemic-induced slowdown and the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, the thaw in the relations between the two powerful economies will come as a relief. There was all the more reason for Beijing to reach out to Washington since the American policy of containment had started to hurt its economic prospects. Xi’s outreach to American businesses suggests acceptance of the truth that a stand-off with the US could only further the slowdown. On its part, the US has exploited the perception of an aggressive China, a view prevalent in many world capitals, to initiate strategic conversations through Quad, Indo-Pacific, AUKUS, and IMEC. Beijing would prefer a pause in this recalibration of power equations in Asia, which is surely not to its advantage. Xi’s remark was telling: “Planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed…for two large countries like China and the US, turning their back on each other is not an option.” The approach marks a departure from the aggressive tone of China’s wolf warriors who emphasised a rising China and spoke about America in unstoppable decline. Whether this is a strategic shift or a tactical manoeuvre will be known in the coming days.
The big tangible takeaway from the meeting was that both countries agreed on resuming high-level military-to-military communication, which Beijing had called off, along with climate talks, in the wake of US Speaker Nancy Pelosi visiting Taiwan in August 2022. As secretary of state Antony Blinken said later, “Restoring these military-to-military contacts, and not just at the secretary of defence level, but also at the regional command level and the operational level, is really critical to helping to avoid miscalculations and mistakes.” China has also promised to work on counternarcotics action. However, the bonhomie at the meeting did not prevent the Chinese from expressing concerns about US support for Taiwan, which Beijing insists will soon be “reunited” with the mainland.
As for New Delhi, it has been a default beneficiary of US-China tensions. The standoff at the border has only brought India and the US closer than ever, with Delhi seemingly shedding its initial hesitations about Quad and Indo-Pacific. The cooling relations between the US and China and worries about supply chains have prompted many businesses to look at India as part of their China-plus-one strategy. It remains to be seen how western capital takes to Xi’s outreach. Delhi needs to keep an eye on the Washington-Beijing dialogue and calibrate its policies wisely. Both capital and technology are essential for our developmental needs, and Delhi should do all it can to encourage their inflow.
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