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The three-hour face-to-face meeting in Bali between President Biden and President Xi — their first non-virtual meeting in over three years — concluded just over an hour ago.

Much can be said (and is already in digital print) looking at this meeting from various angles:

  • History of Biden’s personal relationship with Xi
  • Composition of the small delegations accompanying the heads of state and what those choices say
  • The wide range of issues discussed including Taiwan, Russia, nuclear arms (and their possible use in Ukraine), North Korea, human rights, resumption of national level cooperation on issues of climate change, health security, global food security, and defense-related communications (to forestall accidents and misunderstandings), etc.
  • Differences in the official post-meeting read-outs from the two sides and what those differences signify
  • Atmospherics of the meeting — effect of recent boosts to each leader’s domestic standing; implications of the third-party location on periphery of G20, etc
US President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping, Nusa Dua Bali, Nov 14, 2022 (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

But I will go to what I believe to be the heart of the matter. The bottom line, both immediately and over the medium term:

CONTEXT: Gauged charitably, U.S.-China relations are at their lowest point since at least 1991 (post-Tiananmen and pre-Deng’s Tour of the South). Gauged more hard-headedly, they are in their worst shape since before Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 to begin dialogue and explore a relationship amid the Cold War freeze. The vertiginous decline we’ve been experiencing in recent years started very gradually as far back as 2008 when the (Western) Financial Crisis put shortcomings of the Washington Consensus on display in Beijing at the very moment when China was basking in its success in hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics. The hardening of attitudes became personified on the Chinese side with the emergence of Xi Jinping as paramount leader in 2012. Over the following years, the on-going decline in political relations — as contrasted with ever-strengthening commercial ties — became exacerbated for the Obama Administration as China militarized islands in the South and Southeast China Seas, brazenly breaking a commitment Xi had personally given Obama. It was then personified on the U.S. side starting in 2015 with Donald Trump’s racially-tinged campaign and, following his election, by his go-it-alone crusade to punish China with sanctions and Oval Office invective. The rhetoric was answered in 2017 by Xi Jinping upon his re-election as Chinese Communist Party (CCP) head in the form of an uber-triumphalist speech he delivered from the 19th Party Congress stage. The flash-points multiplied during the pandemic with China working hard to obscure the origins of the Covid-19 outbreak and subsequently using its heavy-handed Zero-Covid policy as the linchpin for Xi’s claim that China offered the world a superior system to liberal Western democracy (a claim which non-Western Taiwan makes a mockery of every day and which Hong Kong once also challenged prior to its being brought to heel brutally by Beijing in 2020). The deterioration continued in 2021 as the Biden Administration disappointed Beijing by not reverting to the softer, Obama-era approach to China that the Chinese leadership in Zhongnanhai had expected. Instead, the Biden Administration worked assiduously and with considerable success, to build a broad, values-based partnership with traditional allies and other aligned countries to answer China with a solid front. The Peoples Liberation Army’s practice-run blockade of Taiwan following House Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August further accelerated the downward spiral. And, while not yet fully appreciated by the American public, passage of the Biden Administration’s CHIPS Act into law in August is perceived in China, rightly, as a policy dagger pointed at the heart of its aspirations for seizing dominance in 21st c. technologies for defense, aerospace and space, surveillance and security, and industrial automation and productivity. (It is with the set of issues in these last two sentences — the interlinked issue of Taiwan and the CHIPS Act — that the Assessing China blog is now focused).

THE BOTTOM LINE: The bottom line of today’s meeting is Taiwan. While both sides settled in their separate post-meeting read-outs on emphasizing the lowest common denominator assertion that they’re now working together to stabilize an unstable relationship, their agendas going into the meeting were clearly different. For the Biden Administration, stabilization was the goal. It was enough just to establish a floor to stop further relationship decline and to limit the negative impact further decline would have on the range of issues under discussion (see above). For Xi, the goal was something more — to leverage agreement to stabilize the relationship toward the end of prying out some glimmer of affirmation from the U.S. side to validate his stance on Taiwan. With his eye on 2027 (21st Party Congress) and 2035 (a key CCP goal for China’s development) and with a domestic lock-hold for the next five years in the form of his new Standing Committee of loyalists, Xi is turning his attention — and ambition — to the international sphere. That means Taiwan as the culmination of his China Dream (and, I would wager, the fulfillment of the backroom deal he likely crafted with the CCP in 2012 to let him off the two-term-limit leash). In Xi’s thinking, if the U.S. could commit to the Shanghai Communique in earlier years, he should push as a next step for formal U.S. acceptance of his claim on Taiwan. As Xi put it, Taiwan is “the very core of our core interests.”

The bottom line of their meeting in Bali today may then be that Xi, just like Putin with Ukraine, misreads U.S. politics and society and the resolve of most of the international community concerning Taiwan. The evidence for this view would be the public read-outs: Biden achieved his chief objective while Xi did not.

But another view is possible. As Xi has demonstrated over the last twelve years, he is willing to take large risks to achieve the China Dream but he is methodical about how he goes about taking those risks. Militarization of the South China Sea and the ruthless imposition of the Basic Security Law in Hong Kong are just two examples. Militarily, China has been modernizing and arming up with laser-focus on deterring the U.S. in the Strait of Taiwan for far longer than the Pentagon has been taking steps to respond. As a result, the window of opportunity for Xi to move militarily is expected to be at its widest around 2027 or 2028. Following that, the belated U.S. military revamp in the region will be coming on stream and narrowing that window with each passing year. (It’s worth noting that 2027 coincides with the next Party Congress and therefore coincides well with the ‘chapter structure’ of the narrative Xi has been building about his stature as not only a peer of Mao Zedong in the Communist era but as a Chinese leader of destiny for the ages.)

So does the “failure” of Xi’s bottom-line agenda regarding Taiwan at today’s meeting indicate that he misreads Biden and the U.S. political system? Or might he instead be playing a longer game to a wider audience? If Xi’s sights are indeed firmly fixed on the 2027/8 moment (not only militarily but also politically and in the eyes of history) and if he is focused on exploiting that window of maximum military opportunity, his failure today to make any headway toward some type of formal understanding with the U.S. regarding Taiwan may be exactly the point.

The choreography may be designed to show Xi making a concerted effort to get the U.S. to more fully acknowledge his claim on Taiwan. Xi probably recognizes this won’t happen. The U.S. will not cut a deal with an autocrat to throw 23 million people in a thriving democracy under the bus. But Xi can use that show of effort over the next few years to advantage. He will have made a show for the world to see of having tried hard to exhaust “peaceful measures” prior to being “forced” to make a military move on Taiwan. He will have checked that box. And it won’t be a coincidence if the moment of being “forced” happens at the same moment of the PLA’s maximum military advantage.

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