And you think your Zoom calls are important. On the evening of November 15, President Biden spoke over video for three and a half hours with China’s autocrat Xi Jinping. The “virtual summit” was held online because Xi hasn’t left China since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic two years ago. According to official readouts of the conversation, Biden and Xi talked to one another warmly. They covered a lot of ground—everything from ICBMs to global energy supplies. They took the first steps toward improved relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Global media amplified this official message. “The Biden-Xi Summit Was Actually Kind of a Big Deal,” read one headline in Slate.
Don’t believe it. Biden’s tête-à-tête with Xi Jinping was less constructive and more harmful than his in-person visit with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in June. At least Biden got something, however insignificant, from that earlier encounter with authoritarianism. The United States and the Russian Federation issued a brief joint statement on nuclear “strategic stability.” They established a “Strategic Stability Dialogue” that would “lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures.” The dialogue began in September. Will it go anywhere? Probably not. But the mind-numbing diplomatic process has started. And it involves real people, meeting in real five-star hotels, in real European cities.
That’s not the case with China. The only thing Xi gave Biden was a pledge to make a pledge sometime in the future. The virtual summit was vaporware—the promise of a possible conversation that doesn’t yet exist and most likely never will. At a Brookings Institution event on November 16, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the two heads of state decided to “look to begin to carry forward discussion on strategic stability.” Try saying that diplomatic tongue-twister three times fast. It’s the equivalent of a contestant on The Bachelor gushing, “I think I’m maybe beginning to fall in love with you.” I translate Sullivan’s gobbledygook this way: Xi and Biden had a conversation about having a conversation about China’s rising stockpile of nuclear warheads and the threat it poses to global security and nonproliferation. Nothing more.
This doesn’t even rise to the level of negotiating for the sake of negotiating. It’s talking about having negotiations for the sake of … well, what exactly? Talking some more? Reminding Xi of all the good times he spent on the phone with Biden a decade ago? Apparently, at the outset of the discussion, Xi used a friendly idiom to describe the U.S. president. Whoop-de-do. Does that signal a meaningful change in China’s behavior on trade, the pandemic, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, North Korea, and Taiwan? Of course not.
On the contrary: The most powerful, ideological, and despotic ruler of China since Mao Zedong used this opportunity to remind the U.S. president that the only guarantee of good relations with the PRC is to get out of its way. Even more worrisome, Xi Jinping repeated his threats against Taiwan, but with a twist, saying, “We are patient and willing to do our utmost to strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification with the utmost sincerity, but if separatist forces provoke and force the issue, or even break through the red line, we will have to take decisive measures.” He also said the United States is playing with fire. And “whoever plays with fire will get burned.”
The Obama veterans who work for Joe Biden have trouble enforcing red lines. Xi Jinping does not. He used similar language in 2017, warning Hongkongers not to challenge the mainland’s sovereignty and Chinese Communist Party control. And, sure enough, when a protest movement emerged in Hong Kong in 2019, Xi crushed it.
Notice, too, how Xi blames Taiwan for cross-strait tensions even as his air force violates Taiwanese airspace with impunity. His message is that China’s policies will remain the same and that it is Biden’s responsibility to rein in Taiwan and to not provoke the mainland. Some “friend.”
Journalists close to the administration emphasize the personal exchanges between Biden and Xi rather than the content, or lack thereof, of the meeting itself. “Monday night’s discussion touched the bedrock of what matters most in the U.S.-China relationship,” wrote David Ignatius of the Washington Post, “and it was at least a beginning of something that could reduce the risk of a global catastrophe.” If Monday really was a beginning, it was not auspicious. Ignatius himself quotes Biden aides “who recalled that when the two men met at Sunnylands, Calif., in 2013, while Biden was vice president, the Chinese leader had raised the possibility of new measures for crisis prevention between the two countries. Little came of that opening.”
Less will come of this one. The vaporware summit was a return to an earlier model of Sino-American relations: the two nations play nice and pretend one isn’t at the other’s throat. It was also a reminder that, since the fall of Afghanistan, President Biden has spurned the China hawks for China doves. The Economist reports that in early September, as the administration reeled from its ignominious and self-inflicted defeat in Central Asia, Xi Jinping “was shockingly testy at the start of a telephone call with Mr. Biden.” Then in late September the United States assented to the swap of imprisoned Huawei executive Meng Wenzhou for two Canadian businessmen held hostage since 2018. On October 7, Jake Sullivan met with Chinese foreign secretary Yang Jiechi in Switzerland to find areas “where the United States and the PRC have an interest in working together.” And on November 10, the United States and China issued a joint declaration to fight climate change.
Words on a page. Another statement China will ignore. This summit was a gift to Xi as he consolidates rule ahead of next year’s winter Olympics in Beijing and his anticipated (and unprecedented) third term as China’s leader. Biden has done nothing to make China pay for its pandemic cover up. He hasn’t increased the defense budget in real terms. He hasn’t further restricted Chinese investment in the U.S. economy. “China’s leaders still want investment and technology from the West,” writes the Economist‘s correspondent, “but they think it is in decadent decline and are decoupling from Western norms and ideas.” America’s leader has done nothing to make them think otherwise.