Finding the footpath through an incinerated forest

(Originally published here on November 7, 2022 in the South China Morning Post.)

No US State Department or National Security Council press briefing is complete these days without an attempt to get confirmation that Joe Biden and Xi Jinping will meet in person as presidents for the first time at the G20 summit in Indonesia this month.

On Friday, less than two weeks before the leaders’ summit on the resort island of Bali, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby responded to one of the more creative ways to ask whether the two would meet: had council officials “seen a shift in terms of the tempo or tone of discussions of engagement” since Xi’s appointment to a third term? Kirby said: “We’re still working, again at the staff level, to see if that can happen.”

This seems a bit tenuous for what would be one of the most important summits of the year, leaving barely enough time to piece together readouts that will school us, again, in the importance of China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and America’s commitment to strengthening democratic governance around the world.

For many, tired readouts are better than a silence that leaves us wondering when missiles might start flying. The implication is that a face-to-face meeting might somehow work better to avert war and address our climate crisis than Biden’s five summits with Xi via phone or video link.

We might wonder how this could be, given that Beijing will not acknowledge that Xi’s policies – including the subjugation of Muslims to a mass “de-extremification” programme – have anything to do with the fraught state of relations between China and much of the West. And Beijing also believes the ball is in Washington’s court when it comes to what is needed to restore any semblance of Sino-US cooperation.

The Biden administration, meanwhile, can’t get its story straight with respect to Washington’s one-China policy, the issue that is always at the top of Beijing’s agenda. The US president can’t pledge to protect Taiwan from a military attack by the People’s Liberation Army and simultaneously insist that the policy hasn’t changed.

Furthermore, with Biden’s restrictions on exports of high-end semiconductors and chip-making tools to China – and expectations of similar curbs on quantum computing, high-end biotechnology and artificial intelligence software – it seems to be a vain hope that a summit meeting might somehow provide a salve for inflamed bilateral ties.

The restrictions are portrayed by Beijing as an effort to throttle China’s technological advancements. While they are exactly that, context is important. The Chinese government makes no secret of its determination to ensure that every element of society – including the private sector – supports its priorities.

Given Beijing’s ambition to undercut America’s global influence, why would the US government allow trade in cutting-edge technology to continue as it had before China was defined as its “most consequential geopolitical challenge”? Does anyone believe that Beijing would allow home-grown technologies with military applications to wind up on international markets, for US investors to harvest?

In order to set the negotiating table at which Biden and Xi might sit this month, both sides must recognise that there’s no way back to the bilateral relationship that had flourished for decades, bringing the world equal measures of material wealth and environmental devastation. That would be like looking for a footpath through a forest that has been incinerated.

The countries that existed during those years are gone. Back then, China was very gradually moving away from its authoritarian past. Xi has since put a halt to that, and last month’s 20th Communist Party congress made clear that the government will not return to its previous course any time soon.

America is also a different country. Regardless of how successful Biden has been in shoring up alliances that enforce the post-world-war global order during his first two years in the White House, the country no longer has a Republican Party that is interested in defending the fundamental American values that run so contrary to China’s.

With a number of election deniers expected to win in this week’s US midterms, Beijing would do well to wait for the result to decide whether they will give Biden the time of day, let alone a discussion about American concerns.

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