By Air Marshal Dhiraj Kukreja
November 16, 2021 was a day of high expectations, for the heads-of-state of two of the largest competitors in the world were to get together, virtually – in a video-call. Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping of USA and China respectively, did speak with each other in a video-call, in an effort to show to the world and their respective domestic audiences, that they could manage the tensions that had arisen as a result of the pandemic and other causes, in the last two years. Alas, the high expectations that some people had, were lost, and the key take-aways, that were expected to reduce tensions, were disappointing. There were no earth-shattering results of the talks, even the routine joint statement on the culmination of such talks, as is customary, was missing.
While the two leaders had spoken with each other on two earlier occasions, they had gotten together face-to-face for the first time since President Biden’s assuming power; it was not a one-to-one dialogue as aides were present on both sides. The talks started with a smile and wave, and the usual introductory remarks, wherein both of them took a dig at each other, although indirectly, on issues that each assumed the other on a weak standing. What, however, was glaringly obvious, during the talks was that China was talking as a global peer to USA, and would brook no nonsense from anyone, least of all USA; it signalled that China was ready to hit back, should USA try and arm-twist it to toe the line.
Mr Biden saluted China’s 5,000 years of history, as he declared that the US does not seek to change China’s system of government, and also emphasising that America’s new and existing global alliances, are not aimed to target China. In a business-like tone, President Biden told his counterpart, “Our responsibility as leaders of China and the United States is to ensure that the competition between our countries does not veer into conflict, whether intended or unintended…..You’re a major world leader, and so is the US.” The latter part of the dialogue could have been the other way around that is ‘The US is a major world leader and so is China’. This is important to note, for it shows a sort of an American acceptance of China’s rise in the global order!
In his response, President Xi Jinping stated that while China was ready to work with USA on important, crucial issues, such as climate change, it was not ready to accept any interference or criticism on its domestic issues, saying that, “there could not be a one-size-fits-all approach and every country and society was different.” He further cautioned that, “Engaging in ideological demarcation, camp division, group confrontation, will inevitably bring disaster to the world…The consequences of the Cold War are not far away.”
Neither of the two leaders shied from raising and answering contentious issues. Issues, such as, Taiwan, Hong Kong, human rights in the broader sense of the term, without mentioning Uighurs in Xin Jiang province, and China’s unfair trade practices, were raised by President Biden. President Xi Jinping, in turn, cautioned USA by saying that some people “want to use Taiwan to control China”, which he called a risky proposition, further stating that “those who play with fire, get burned”! On the issue of human rights, President Xi Jinping expressed his willingness to talk on the basis of ‘mutual respect’, rather than as a superior talking to an inferior, “without any interference in internal affairs”.
This video-call was a far cry from how normally Chinese and American leaders meet, which are preceded by talks between senior officials. Notwithstanding that fact there was no major conclusion at the end of the nearly 200 minutes, the occasion is considered to be a modest breakthrough in the stalemate that has been going on for some time now, and also considering that President Xi Jinping has confined himself to being within China ever since the outbreak of the pandemic.
US-China relations are crucial to both parties, and to the rest of the world too. That this meeting occurred at all, is an indication that the two leaders have probably realised that the existing hostility between the two nations was not beneficial for either of them, and had the potential to escalate over any hotspot, such as, Taiwan or the South China Sea. It, therefore, does appear to be a genuine attempt to reset ties.
How will this dialogue between USA and China, affect the geopolitical scene in South Asia, where the two nations are actively involved? India-US relationship, in the recent years has shown a quantum jump, particularly with strategic dialogues, the revival of the Quad, and the many defence purchases by India. Nevertheless, there remain doubts in the minds of some, or is it many, in the US, especially due to the continuing India-Russia and India-Iran relations. In India too, there are some, who feel that sooner or later, USA would revert to cooperation with China and Pakistan, to serve its interests. Such a turn by USA could leave India wobbling.
China wants investment and technology from the West, which it also feels is in a decadent decline, and hence, is decoupling itself from Western ideas and practices. China blames Trump-era blocking of supply-chains and the blocking of semi-conductors and other advanced technology for the present imbroglio. The current US administration seems to be wanting to sort out the situation through dialogue and limited cooperation. For example, the surprise declaration at the recent COP-26 climate summit at Glasgow by China and USA to enhance climate action. Nevertheless, China is continued to be recognised as a serious, if not the only, challenger to US’ global supremacy, and, hence, cooperation will be slow.
US and Pakistan relationship is another story, and could become a reality in the near future, notwithstanding the continuous double-speak and double-dealings by Pakistan. While, the last two decades, and a preliminary analysis report of the ignominious US withdrawal from Afghanistan does indicate that a segment of the US administration is aware of Pakistan’s dubious dealings in Afghanistan and elsewhere; there, however, still exists a fairly large section which believes in Pakistan, and the role it can play in assisting USA in counter-terrorism. The prospects of USA assisting Pakistan in the near future, are not too bright.
The geopolitical situation, can thus be summarised as: there has been significant deterioration in the relations between USA and China and, its protégé, Pakistan, in the last few years; this has opened avenues of cooperation with India. Over the next several years, if India plays its hand correctly, the prospects of India-US relations growing further are bright, considering the many common factors between the two nations. As it stands, India is being seen to be consolidating its relations with USA, and others too.