US President Joe Biden on Monday shook hands with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping for the first time since assuming office almost two years ago. The handshake followed several phone calls between the two leaders that failed to arrest the slide in ties between the world’s two largest economies.
But handshakes can do wonders in repairing damaged relationships, building trust and sustaining cooperation. Biden seemed to suggest the same when he told Xi: “I believe there is little substitute for face-to-face communication.” Even research agrees.
The in-person meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Bali was never about striking major deals or agreements but about maintaining the status quo, ensuring things don’t go downhill from here, or as US officials described it, building a floor under the bilateral relationship. Given the low expectations, that handshake was a big stride forward.
At the meeting, which lasted more than three hours, Biden and Xi agreed to mend their broken ties, with both coincidently noting in their opening remarks that the two countries shared a responsibility to manage their differences and get a grip on their bilateral ties as that’s what the world expects of them. They also condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats.
To appreciate the significance of the outcome of this meeting and the behind-the-scenes effort that went to make it a reality, we must understand just how far US-China relations had sunk.
Just this August, Beijing froze key lines of communication with the US on military relations and important climate cooperation after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. China then ratcheted up military pressure on the island even as Biden pledged to defend Taiwan militarily. Biden, for his part, clamped down on China’s access to critical semiconductor technology.
Stakes are high
In a world where climate change continues to wreak havoc, people and businesses are still recovering from a pandemic and widening geopolitical fissures mean that even a nuclear attack can’t be ruled out, it’s only prudent on the part of the world’s two most powerful countries to remain engaged and seize the initiative to promote stability.
The Bali meeting delivered on that front with both parties agreeing to keep communication channels open, including through high-level in-person meetings, and to resume working together on critical issues such as climate change and food security.
While the two sides continue to have strong differences, including on Taiwan, human rights, and trade and technology transfer — none of which are easy to iron out — both stand to gain by working together.
For Biden, it would mean his allies in Asia, fearing a potential military conflict involving US and China, can breathe easier. As for a newly emboldened Xi, he can show investors and businesses that he is ready to engage with Washington to bring down geopolitical tensions at a time when the Chinese economy is struggling.
Washington and Beijing have taken the first step towards normalizing ties and advancing global stability. They must make sure their pledge to continue talking doesn’t fall short in the face of their enormous disagreements.
Edited by: Uwe Hessler