The Platform


The much-anticipated meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping didn’t exactly end with both men sitting around a campfire sharing a cup of cocoa with marshmallows. With that said, tensions between the two men didn’t get any worse either.

Xi Jinping went into the meeting with the goal to derive the best outcome from a position of relative weakness as compared to Biden. China’s sagging economy and diminishing long-term economic outlook has pushed Beijing to seek a more conciliatory tone, a gradual shift from its previous belligerence.

This can be seen in the fact that China did not respond with immediate force to Washington’s new restrictions on advanced semiconductors, as compared to the previous tit-for-tat reactions on tariff countermeasures during the Trump years.

A significant downturn in the property market and the zero-COVID policy have all choked China’s economic growth. This has caused the need to arrest the slide, create workable solutions, and secure economic and resource settings with other players.

Following the 20th National Congress, Xi Jinping realizes that he now has an opportunity to shore up China’s declining economic prospects, without being perceived as weak by party rivals.

The rise of Giorgia Meloni in Italy and Rishi Sunak in Britain has created a global pushback against China’s actions where they are more ready to call out China for its perceived misdeeds. Sunak has reiterated again that China is the biggest threat to the UK. The same confrontational approach can be seen with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who is calling on countries to increasingly turn their backs on China and other autocrats.

Washington’s efforts to ramp up pressure on China across a number of fronts has Beijing crying foul. For Washington, it realises that its decades-old supportive approach to Beijing with the hope of its eventual shift to freedom and democracy is no longer feasible, and that an inevitable reorientation is needed to face Beijing’s rise. For all the hype and arguments on America’s decline and diminishing power, Washington is confident of its own staying power and lasting capacity to deter Beijing from changing the global status quo and the rules-based order.

Biden went into the meeting with a willingness to be confrontational with his counterpart yet took a conciliatory tone with the hope that Beijing will tone down its tactics. Biden’s approach was not strategic weakness as some have argued, it is a strong embedded message of playing the higher moral card and reinforcing America’s unyielding stature and steadfast upholding of values, norms, and rules.

Biden said he wanted the U.S. and China to manage their differences and prevent competition from becoming a conflict. Biden’s approach intended to reassure allies that the U.S. will be seen as the calm, responsible, and stabilizing player, countering the narrative that it is provoking China.

Biden could have borrowed a page from Donald Trump’s playbook, but Biden wanted to convey to Xi Jinping that Washington was the more responsible global power. By demonstrating a commitment to work with China to solve pressing global issues, Washington reaps the long-term benefit of taking the moral high ground and being willing to be accommodative for the interests of the global good.

China needs the U.S. more than the latter. Washington will need Beijing to continue adhering to the rules-based order and to be a responsible major global player, including cooperation for the greater good.

For all its challenges now, Beijing needs the West’s restraint and support especially concerning trade and the global supply chain.

Both Joe Biden and Xi Jinping hope to play down the prospects of a new Cold War, or a potential hot war. The main focus now for both is how to ensure the rules set out are adhered to and understood by both, to prevent the triggers of a full-blown conflict out of miscalculations and misperceived intentions and fears.

Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya for more than 9 years. His areas of focus include strategic and security studies, America’s foreign policy and power projection, regional conflicts and power parity analysis and has published various publications on numerous platforms including books and chapter articles. He is also a regular contributor in providing op-eds and analytical articles for both the local and international media on various contemporary global issues and regional affairs since 2007.