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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury


Last Wednesday, US President Joe Biden welcomed Chinese premier Xi Jinping to California for talks. The two leaders had plenty on their agenda, much of it extremely important, but it is nonetheless quite remarkable how little attention was given to the Russia-Ukraine war in the context of their summit.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has dominated global news since February last year and yet it barely got a mention in the press conference after the leaders' talks. When Biden did mention the war in his opening remarks, in passing, it was difficult to grasp quite what he wanted to say because he fumbled his words in the manner that has become regrettably characteristic of his presidency (see from 3.40 in the video). In so far as war featured in questions from the press, it was the one in Gaza that reporters asked about.

The Russia angle

The context for the meeting perhaps eased a path for the two leaders to reach some tentative consensus on matters like climate change and aritifical intelligence. Until very recently, it was difficult to image concerns and suspicions about China's growing economic and technological support for Russia's war effort not being an obstacle to progress in talks on these other issues. The war in Ukraine is rightly considered a very consequential conflict for the global order, after all, and China has helped Russia to defend the Ukrainian territory it occupies by supplying the excavators and equipment it needed to dig trenches.

I argued in a previous post that China benefits from seeing rivals' power, including that of the US, diminished in the context of the Russia-Ukraine war (what Geoffrey Blainey called 'the waterbirds' dilemma'). At the same time, I pointed out that China is unlikely to wish to see Russia defeated outright. This is fairly basic geopolitics: China would like to see the US and Russia weakened through the war in Ukraine, but it views Russia as a helpful ally in an emerging multipolar world order and therefore does not wish to see it humiliated. Hence its quietly increased support for Russia.

Over recent weeks, US attention has shifted away from Ukraine to the Middle East with immediate consequences. One consequence is that US messages on the war in Ukraine have become less disciplined. There is less hesitancy in talking about a lack of progress in Ukraine's counteroffensive. Ukrainian officials push back, talking for example of having gained footholds across the Dnipro river, but US criticism of Ukraine is openly voiced in a way it wasn't a year ago. As another example, it now seems agreed that Russia had nothing to do with last September's Nord Stream pipeline explosions (something some of us doubted from the start), with suspicion for the sabotage now falling on a Ukrainian military officer.

A second, perhaps related consequence is that disagreements among Ukrainian commanders have come to the surface. At the beginning of this month, the commander-in-chief of Ukraine's armed forces spoke of a 'stalemate' which, reportedly, did not go down well with Volodomyr Zelenskyy. Meanwhile the Ukrainian defence minister asked for the head of special operations to be replaced in a move that also appeared to reveal some disagreements. These frustrations may reflect a sense that US support is wavering.

A third consequence has been disruptions to the supply of ammunition to Ukraine, especially 155mm shells that seem to be in short supply globally. It turns out that the US had been supplying these to Ukraine from a stockpile in Israel; some of those shells, not spent, are being returned to the Middle East to support the Israelis. Military chiefs in Moscow will be glad of this development, and Putin -- recall -- was in Beijing recently consolidating Russia's 'alliance' with China (I commented on it in this post).

China's destiny?

I would posit that the ostensible progress in US-China relations last week is another consequence of US foreign policy distraction. Really, or so it appears from the public parts of the meeting, the two leaders evaded discussion of the big political conflicts that have the potential to shape the global order in the coming decades.

There were pluses. One of the announcements to come out the meeting was that there would be a resumption of military-to-military communications between the China and the US (in Biden's phrase, fumbling again, 'direct, open, clear, direct communications on a direct basis' [2.20]). These were broken off last year when Nancy Pelosi, at the time the speaker in the House of Representatives, visited Taiwan. The 'spy balloon' incident earlier this year caused a further deterioration in the relationship and hindered the resumption of military contacts.

The Biden administration will seize on any agreements with China, however tentative, as positive developments. On the one hand, of course, military communication between the powerful states is essential and its recent absence deeply worrying. On the other hand, anyone interpreting the meeting as a signal of improving relations between the US and China ought to be cautious: if US attention hadn't been distracted from Ukraine, the mood could have been different.

Consider the other issue that one would expect to feature prominently in any US-China summit: Taiwan. Perhaps it is laudable that climate change and artificial intelligence received more attention, but there is a hankering feeling the two leaders might have scarcely addressed Taiwan, one of the major causes of tension between the two states, and that is worrying. In the press conference Biden didn't seem to want to talk about Taiwan. Xi Jinping, by contrast, used the summit as a platform for reiterating his position that reunification is 'unstoppable'. Xi called on the US to stop arming Taiwan; Biden had no reply.

Chinese state officials believe that it is their country's destiny to assume a dominant position in the global order. The story that many Chinese tell themselves is that the emperors once ruled the tianxia ('all under heaven') and, after suffering a 'century of humiliation' at the hands of outside powers (ending with the Maoist era), they have a moral right to recover their place. Nothing in Biden's public remarks will concern them in their belief in their destiny.

Wars of today and tomorrow

The summit did not pass without friction. Biden called Xi a 'dictator' in a diplomatic indiscretion which the Chinese will brush off. It recalled Biden's off-the-cuff remark in 2021 that Putin was a 'killer'; it may have been true but it was hardly a shining example of diplomacy.

The frictions between China and the US are only likely to increase in the future. China's leaders think their state's power is growing and that they only need to bide their time before it replaces the US at the top of the global pecking order. They may be mistaken; the Chinese economy looks weaker than it once did. But if US attention is so easily distracted as it has been on Ukraine lately, then officials in Washington DC may find themselves blindsided, whether on Taiwan or elsewhere.

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Cover image credit: Public domain from the White House. Original in colour. Photo from meeting between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping in 2022.

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