They couldn’t have chosen a more exotic venue for the meeting of the decade than the Land of the Gods, as Bali is called.
Well known for its natural beauty, towering volcanoes and green rice fields; and also for its warm hospitality, it provided an enchanted, and neutral, background for the first in-person meeting of the leaders of the two powerful countries, well at least since President Biden took office. (Yes, they had a video call about a year ago, in 2021, and a phone call in July, but real world meetings tend to be more effective. as the US President has also put it, claiming that “there was little substitute to face-to-face contact”.)
Amidst US-China relations in historic low, it was high time for it.
And with both leaders being able to show up some domestic victories, thus having significant legitimacy to conduct (conciliatory) talks, it was probably a very fortunate timing.
Of course, nobody had high expectations, even less so hopes for a complete reset; as it was obvious in advance. Both the two leaders involved, but also other world leaders present in Indonesia, used cautious words about the possible outcomes. The same is true to the statements on the press conference after the three hour talk. Reserved optimism, with many question marks.
The disagreements are too numerous and the trust is far too low for anything else. There were of course, easier and more difficult parts, but weren’t real surprises, neither regarding what the two presidents talked about, nor regarding the outcomes. Even if, more likely than not, much more was said and agreed behind the closed doors than what got acknowledged afterwards, especially on economic issues.
These were the most important takeaways after the “blunt”, according to President Biden, but “in-depth, candid and constructive” (a la President Xi) meeting.
1. Taiwan (and the rest of the world) can probably breathe a little
Among the most important topics covered was the issue of Taiwan. At the press conference, President Biden told reporters he didn’t believe there would be any imminent attempt by China to invade Taiwan. Not that Beijing has ever claimed something like that, as it is waging a “protracted war” against the US when time is less important than the outcome, but the reassurance is still a positive sign.
But as President Biden objected to Beijing’s “coercive and increasingly aggressive” actions around Taiwan, claiming that those undermined “peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” and k and, in return, President Xi declared the issue of Taiwan a Chinese internal affair and a “red-line” not to be crossed, cautious optimism is advised for the medium term.
2. Still no for a nuclear war
While President Biden ruled out the use of nuclear weapons and sent a strong warning for Russia against trying to do so in Ukraine, the Chinese statement in the end had no reference to nukes, urging for a quick and peaceful end instead. There was no mentioning though about Beijing trying to use its powers as a leverage to pressure Russia into peace talks with Ukraine. And as China is rapidly expanding its military capabilities, including its nuclear arsenal, at the same time insisting on the US “axing” its own, the emphasis is on “for nor”, again.
North Korea was talked about, as well.
But again, it was mainly about drawing the red-lines and exchanging some not-so-veiled threats, like the US warming China that if it wouldn’t rein in its small neighbor, the US might be forced to increase its regional presence, even if the president also admitted that it was difficult to assess how much leverage Beijing had for real over Pyongyang. On the positive side, he said that he believed that Xi Jinping didn’t want further escalatory actions on North Korea’s side.
3. Climate talks got a green light
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s surprise visit to Taiwan put climate talks between the two countries on the hold; a serious threat to global efforts, given that both are big polluters.
Naturally, none of the above issues got any closer to an acceptable solution during the meeting.
But there were many signs pointing in the right direction, like the mutual promises of “further discussions” on topics of concern, like climate, debt relief, health and food security; and even more so a planned visit to China by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, but all in all, the most important yield of the meeting was its happening.
On a side note, fresh UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s small change of course, classifying China “only” as a “systemic competitor”, but not a “threat”, also fits into this pattern
Giving a slight hope that the two superpowers would eventually find a way to coexist in spite of their disagreements on human rights and values, or their “vigorous” competition (for example in the field of semiconductors), sparing the world from a conflict nobody could win.
A more predictable political climate could also give a strong boost to struggling economies, helping global recovery.
All in all, rephrasing Neil Armstrong’s famous words, this was “one small step for mankind”.