On November 14, the world saw and heard what it had wanted to desperately see and hear. In Bali, Indonesia, the US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping shook hands and exchanged smiles. This was the first face-to-face between the world’s two most powerful leaders after Biden became president.
The content of their conversation is heartening for those who follow the US-China relations which appeared to be veering off course in recent years.
Biden opened the conversation in a hearty tone. “President Xi, I’m really glad to be able to see you again in person. We spent a lot of time together and—back in the days when we were both vice presidents, and it’s just great to see you,” said Biden, while expressing the commitment to “keeping the lines of communications open between you and me” because China and the US “have so much that we have an opportunity to deal with.”
There was a palpable sense of responsibility and sense of commitment in Biden “to show that China and the United States can manage [their] differences, prevent competition from becoming anything ever near conflict, and to find ways to work together on urgent global issues that require [their] mutual cooperation.” “This is critical for the sake of our two countries and the international community,” said Biden.
Biden rightly mentioned that the world expects “China and the United States to play key roles in addressing global challenges, from climate changes, to food insecurity.” Biden reassured that the US is ready to do just that. “I look forward to our continuing and ongoing open and honest dialogue we’ve always had.”
President Xi was not frugal in complementing Biden. “Mr. President, it’s good to see you. The last time we met was in 2017, during the World Economic Forum in Davos. That was already more than five years ago.” Xi appeared reflective: “From the initial contact and the establishment of diplomatic relations to today, China and the United States have gone through 50-plus eventful years. We have gained experience, and we’ve also learned lessons.” Xi was in favor of learning lessons from history to guide the relations at present. “History is the best textbook, so we should take history as a mirror and let it guide the future,” he said. The Chinese leader was in favor of charting “the right course for the China-US relationship.” “The world expects that China and the United States will properly handle the relationship. And for our meeting, it has attracted the world’s attention,” Xi said. Xi stressed on the need to work with all countries to bring more hope to world peace, greater confidence in global stability, and stronger impetus to common development. “I look forward to working with you, Mr. President, to bring China-U.S. relations back to the track of healthy and stable growth to the benefit of our two countries and the world as a whole,” Xi told Biden.
There are additional details, some of them contradictory too, about what they said to each other on the sidelines of the summit. The White House readout mentions Biden telling Xi that the US will compete vigorously with China by using all sources and strengths at home and by aligning efforts with allies and partners around the world. The White House statement also faults China on Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, while, also at the same time, reiterating that America’s “one China policy has not changed.” The readout by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China mentions Xi seeking rapprochement with the US: China does not seek to change the existing international order or interfere in the internal affairs of the US, has no intention to challenge or displace the US, the two sides should respect each other, coexist in peace, pursue win-win cooperation, and work together to ensure that China-US relations move forward on the right course without collision and so on. According to the Chinese version of the story, Xi told Biden that the Taiwan question is at the very core of China’s core interests: “the bedrock of the political foundation of China-US relations, and the first red line that must not be crossed in China-US relations.”
They could have discussed more than what was made public but optimistically, the gestures, tone and content of their conversation indicate many positives.
Moment of truth for US-China relations
The exchange of welcome and warm words between the world’s two most powerful leaders may not mean much for China hawks and US hawks (including in Nepal) but I see this as a potential breakthrough and an opportunity for the two countries to come to an understanding, respecting each other’s strengths, powers, limitations, challenges and shared responsibilities for the greater good of the world. Handled rightly by both sides, the Xi-Biden face-to-face in Bali could be instrumental in repairing the broken ties.
“The Xi-Biden meeting is meaningful in many respects,” Suresh C Chalise, who served as Nepal’s ambassador to the US and who was also the foreign affairs advisor to Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, told me. Chalise sees the November 14 meeting as a realization in the American leadership that China is a power to reckon with. “The world has recognized that the US is an established superpower and China has risen to a superpower status. America seems to have realized that it is no longer the only superpower,” he said.
We had reasons to worry, said Chalise, as the two superpowers were not only competing but were heading toward confrontations. “The rivalry between the two great powers created tensions globally and regionally. The Xi-Biden meet could help lessen these tensions and could potentially help establish global stability, making it easier for countries like Nepal to maintain relations with both the superpowers.”
Suresh Sharma, a Kathmandu-based commentator on strategic affairs who served as the Brigadier General and Spokesperson of Nepal Army, also attaches importance to the Xi-Biden summit. “What they said to each other in Bali might not change their official positions on key issues, but the US president has shown a good gesture to his Chinese counterpart and vice versa. This can be interpreted as the US recognizing China as a superpower,” he told me. “China also seems willing to improve its relations with the US. The two sides have accepted that they can establish cooperation on many fronts, despite having some obvious differences.”
China and the US have been in confrontation for quite some time—particularly after Donald Trump’s presidency in 2017, followed by his trade war and aggressive rhetoric against China.
At times, China and the US had such acrimonious exchanges, it felt they would immediately go to war (think about the public rebuke of each other at the foreign minister level in March 2021 and the warning of war over Taiwan question). The world watched, with bated breath.
At times China and the US had such acrimonious exchanges, it felt they would immediately go to war.
Why it matters for Nepal
While Nepali political actors are to be blamed for not being able to properly handle the relations with the US and China in recent years, part of the reason why China and the US faced each other off in Kathmandu on issues such as the Indo-Pacific Strategy, Millennium Challenge Corporation grant projects, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects, State Partnership Program (SPP) among others, and the controversies that followed were also the byproducts of the US-China cold war.
There have been considerable spillover effects of the growing rivalry between the US and China in Nepal. China stood against the US-funded projects in Nepal, lobbying with Nepali leaders to prevent its passage from parliament. Top officials of the two countries, including their envoys in Kathmandu, indulged in a war of words for several days. China publicly rejoiced over Nepal’s rejection of the State Partnership Program.
There have been moments when the visits of American officials to Nepal have raised eyebrows in Beijing and the visits of Chinese officials to Kathmandu have raised eyebrows in Washington. Nepali public watched with worry if the leadership in Kathmandu would fail to withstand the conflicting concerns and pressures and tread a fine line on tricky geopolitics. Washington and Beijing have obvious conflicting interests and expectations from Kathmandu.
And in a country where the media, commentariat and intellectuals love to align themselves with one or another camp, instead of being neutral, the China-US rivalry is sure to make matters worse. The polarization is beginning to appear among the political formations as well with certain political parties acting as being more inclined to China and unfavorable to the US and vice versa.
“When the two global leaders shake hands, there will likely be no pitfalls of their competition for global supremacy. There will likely be no needless controversies around the development projects supported by the two countries,” said Suresh C Chalise. Nepal will hopefully be able to better balance its ties with the US and China.
“The Xi-Biden meeting gives a sigh of relief to small countries like Nepal attempting to balance relations in today’s stormy and turbulent geo-political environment,” Dr Nishchal N Pandey, the Director of Centre for South Asian Studies, a Kathmandu-based think tank, told me. “It signifies that the American and Chinese leadership is pragmatic and mature and would not want their competition to spill into a deadly conflict at a time when the Russia-Ukraine war has already damaged the global economy. We hope that this engagement will be sustained in the coming months.”
Suresh C Chalise believes that Nepal can benefit more from improved US-China relations. “America is Nepal’s trusted friend and has stood for Nepal’s sovereignty. China has been consistently speaking out in support of Nepal’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. One-China policy is a bedrock of our relations with China,” said Chalise. “When China and the US lessen hostilities and renew their friendship, this will do us a lot of good. It will be easier for Nepal to further improve and handle its relations with the two powers. Our relations with them as the development partners will be further strengthened.”
Suresh Sharma agrees. “It is good news for Nepal,” he said.
Whether the November 14 Xi-Biden summit will mark a new beginning in US-China relations or will pass like a fleeting moment will become clear in days ahead. But people like me, who advocate peace and friendship with the two rival powers, will look back to the summit as an occasion when things could have changed. China and the US have had a history of maintaining their friendship amid differences. Nepal has a history of being on better terms with both of these powers when they are in friendship than when they are hostile to each other.