Prof. ST Hsieh
Director, US-China Energy Industry Forum
March 15, 2023
The following news report does not reflect the reality of US-China relation: pining the hope for defusing bilateral tensions on personal relationship between two leaders is wishful thinking at best. It represents the ultimate misunderstanding of Chinese culture and politics.
Obviously, President Biden is a very successful and seasoned US politician. Biden’s success comes through winning elections with kissing babies, hugging voters: the key to winning election is for the candidate being one of the crowds. Biden also tells jokes and appears to be relaxed. Even his famous gaffs show that he is just a regular Joe.
But most senior leaders in China come through the ranks, promoted because diligent work, full dedication to the assignment, and a good record of performance. In public, they always show their serious side and are constantly focused on work. Lighthearted behavior is a sign that he/she is not a good leader.
So, when VP Biden travelled with VP Xi in China for many miles, Xi was the official host but he was at work. Biden might think that it was a relaxed side-tour so he could get to know Xi as a person. Not really, Biden was faced with a VP Xi all the time. Further, at that specific juncture, Xi was on the way up for the top position in China, but Biden was apparently at his peak already as Vice President of the US. Much of the “acquaintance” between Biden-Xi encounter during that time should be understood in their personal perspective.
The world has changed since VP Biden spent a lot of time with VP Xi:
- US-China relation has turned upside down. China now is the most serious threat ever or pacing threat to the US.
- China’s economy under Xi has advanced while the US faces many domestic challenges.
- Donald Trump’s four-year as President of the US had created such a bad legacy, both domestic and global, that President Biden must resolve.
- COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine War are the new global challenges, which overshadowed the global climate crisis. But instead of a joint global relief effort, the world has been divided into different camps.
As such, the US-China relation is under water so Biden and his team should not count on whatever VP Biden’s assessment of VP Xi to look for easing tensions. A completely new vision for the future is needed. Biden needs to assess and understand what Xi’s agenda for the future of China.
Biden’s most important challenges, from Xi’s perspective, are not China. Rather, how much is his support base in the US. More bluntly, does Xi have enough confidence in Biden as the leader of the US and for how long? If Xi is convinced that Biden does not have the support of great majority of the US public, why bother to make deals? Because even a deal was made between Biden and Xi the US Congress and public won’t be satisfied. Especially, the US is entering the 2024 general election cycle, not only politicians will tune their message to woo US voters, but no one is also sure who will be moving into the White House in 2025.
White House hopes Biden’s relationship with Xi can defuse U.S.-China tensions
Wed, March 15, 2023 at 2:30 PM PDT
WASHINGTON — A thin thread may be all that’s preventing tensions between the U.S. and China from devolving even further — the personal relationship that President Joe Biden has cultivated over the past dozen years with his Chinese counterpart, Biden administration officials and foreign policy analysts said.
Now that Chinese President Xi Jinping has consolidated power and effectively ended collective rule, he’s the lone figure in Beijing making decisions that will drive future relations, according to U.S. officials who were granted anonymity to offer frank assessments of the relationship.
It is Xi who will decide whether China invades Taiwan; Xi who will determine whether China gives lethal arms to Russia in its war in Ukraine; Xi who will calibrate how hard to push North Korea into curbing a nuclear arms program that threatens the United States and its allies.
“The answer is China. Now what’s the question?” Jeremy Bash, a former CIA chief of staff, said on the country’s role in global affairs as Xi starts another five-year term.
One question is whether the Biden administration can deter Xi from actions that put the two nations on a path to conflict. Biden often tells aides that when they speak publicly about China, they should stress the need to open lines of communication, a senior administration official said.
Yet because of Xi’s dominance in China’s system, the only conduit that truly matters in staving off catastrophe is the one that exists between the two presidents, administration officials and analysts say.
That’s not a durable solution. Biden’s term ends in less than two years, and if he chooses not to run again or loses re-election, his successor might have to build a relationship with Xi from scratch. Meantime, his rapport with Xi is under constant strain from the hard-line positions each country has staked out. Biden has kept in place the Trump-era tariffs that target China and has also imposed new export controls that prohibit the sale of sophisticated computer chips and high-tech equipment to the country.
“Biden says, ‘We want competition but not conflict with China,'” said Daniel Russel, former director of Asian affairs in the Obama White House. “That sounds perfectly reasonable to you and me. But the way the Chinese hear that is if Biden were saying, ‘I want to be up in your grill. I want to get in your face. I want to do all these things you vehemently object to and, by the way, I want that to be done with no risk to myself.‘”
No one serving in the U.S. government is as familiar with Xi as Biden. He has spent days in face-to-face meetings with Xi dating back to when they were both vice presidents, giving him rare insight into the intentions and motivations of the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.
Having gotten to know Xi, Biden hopes to use those insights to put the U.S. and China on a safer footing. A recent security assessment written by U.S. intelligence officials warns that China wants to build a “world-class military” capable of “offsetting perceived U.S. military superiority.”
For his part, Xi believes the U.S. is bent on the “containment” of China.
A new military pact forged by the Biden administration underscores how differently the two nations see the world. Biden traveled to San Diego on Monday to announce a deal with Australia and the United Kingdom that stations nuclear submarines in Canberra in hopes of deterring Chinese aggression in the Pacific. But to Xi, the move might seem like a fresh example of America’s “encirclement” and “containment” of China.
“In the system that’s currently configured in China … there’s an increasing sense that you have to be talking at the leader level to get decisions,” a second senior Biden administration official said.
“The president’s belief in the importance of bilateral personal relationships has been validated in the U.S.-China” dynamic, the official continued. “But it’s also our only option. There are no other venues where we can constructively engage deeply.”
Biden isn’t one to swap memos and leave it at that. One mentor to him was Mike Mansfield, the former senator from Montana who later became U.S. ambassador to Japan. One of the lessons that Mansfield drummed into Biden was “how important it was to listen to what the other person had to say,” Russel, the former Obama administration official, said. “I had extensive conversations with Biden when he was vice president about personal diplomacy. … That’s very much in Joe Biden’s DNA and theory of foreign policy.”
As Obama’s vice president, Biden traveled to China in 2011 for a visit with Xi, who was understood to be a rising figure. After a set of formal meetings, they left the Chinese capital and went to Chengdu in the southwest, where they ditched the ties, took walks together and found themselves at one point on a high school basketball court.
“Some guy had a ball there and Biden picked it up and started shooting,” said Robert Wang, a former U.S diplomat who was on the trip. “He missed the first eight or nine shots and finally made it. Then, he turned around and gave the ball to Xi, and Xi shook his head. That’s it; he wouldn’t try it.”
“But Xi was smiling and he was affable,” he continued. “Clearly, Biden thought this was something he could do and maybe be effective at.”
Speaking through translators, they asked each other open-ended questions. Biden questioned Xi about what kept him awake at night, recalled Russel, who accompanied Biden on the trip. Xi asked about civilian control of the military in America and how the arrangement worked.
It would be stretching things to say that they developed a friendship; a wary respect might be more apt, according to officials who’ve watched them interact. When they met in Bali, Indonesia, in November for the summit of the Group of 20 leading economies, they would mention their time together in China 12 years earlier — not so much to warmly reminisce as to reinforce various points they were making, the second senior official said.
Biden views Xi “as very hard, unsentimental — a nationalist who believes in their version of Chinese exceptionalism,” the official added. “The president has said this both privately and on the record: There’s not a democratic bone in his [Xi’s] body.”
If nothing else, the relationship between the presidents might head off the sorts of misunderstandings between leaders that have triggered past conflicts, some analysts said.
“I’ve spoken to Biden about this: He is very proud of his relationship with Xi. I don’t think that leads to trust, but it does lead to a level of respect,” said Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm. “Generally, the relationship [between the U.S. and China] is a bit more stable because Biden is there. I believe that.”
Others are dubious. Hard national interests, not a more amorphous personal connection, will ultimately control how the U.S. and China navigate a perilous time for both, some China-watchers say.
“Xi is open about wanting to erode the American-led global order,” said Michael Doran, a former White House national security official under former President George W. Bush. “How much can you charm a guy into not having that aspiration?”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com