The stakes are high ahead of a meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
It was seen as a sort of test of whether the two leaders could find a way to stop a spiraling deterioration in relations between the two countries.
While the Americans gave the media a preview of what they wanted out of the meeting, it was always harder to understand the Chinese’s intentions. While Xi Jinping’s near-term goals may not be too far off from Biden’s, long-term views are more difficult to reconcile.
The background is that relations between the two superpowers are the worst in decades, some say, since us The communist government was formally recognized and full diplomatic relations established in the late 1970s.
The list of issues that divide them is long and deeply held; pious Taiwanto Hong Kong, North Korea, trade and technology development.
Neither side expressed any optimism about the meeting in advance. In fact, a major breakthrough is considered highly unlikely.
But there are vague hints that there is some common ground, at least in terms of the need to communicate.
Xi Jinping’s opening remarks emphasized the importance of face-to-face communication and highlighted the fact that the world is watching. He said, “I look forward to China and the United States properly handling the relationship between the two countries.”
That statement may be more pointed than self-reflective. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan angered the Chinese and was branded highly “irresponsible”. It was after her visit that the ongoing conversation on issues such as climate change ceased.
However, China does take its place on the world stage very seriously. It wants to be seen as a global leader and treated as such. President Xi may acknowledge the importance of reappearing at such high-level meetings after a lengthy quarantine traded under a strict zero-COVID policy.
Chinese leaders are also likely to quietly admit that while it will not compromise on many of its cherished issues, any kind of conflict with the United States would be disastrous.
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Indeed, there is clear evidence that Xi wants the meeting to take place. It will take months of quiet diplomacy to pave the way, which would not have been possible without the will of the highest levels.
However, the shared desire to keep the lines of communication open may be all for now.
The real problem is that the current divide between China and the United States is not just a series of issues.
Underpinning these issues is a deep distrust of each other’s underlying motives.
The Chinese believe that the United States has strategic interests and actually has policies to try to contain China, suppress it and prevent it from becoming the economic and geopolitical kingmaker it wants to be.
The United States believes that China wants to promote authoritarianism around the world and stifle American interests in Asia.
While both sides may recognize the importance of the relationship to global stability, these ideological positions remain difficult to reconcile.