Harvey Dzodin: Xi-Biden call marks fresh start in new year

February 12 , 2021

Photo taken on Feb 10, 2021 shows the Empire State Building lit up in red for the Chinese Lunar New Year, in New York, the United States. [Photo/Xinhua]


By Harvey Dzodin,a senior research fellow at the Center for China and Globalization(CCG).

Let’s be frank: Even though many issues divide us, Americans, Chinese and the rest of the world can wholeheartedly agree that we’re happy to say good riddance to the Year of the Rat. We welcome the Year of the Ox as one of new opportunities and challenges, and the recent phone call between the leaders of the world’s two most powerful countries represents a fresh beginning that this new year brings.

Because of the care that goes into organizing such a call at the highest level, I’m certain that it was no coincidence that the marathon two-hour conversation between President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart, Joe Biden, occurred at this very juncture. Despite the serious differences between our two countries, it’s a sign not only of respect between the White House and Zhongnanhai but also that in many ways, the winds of change are blowing over bilateral relations.

Gone, for sure, is the seat-of-the-pants myopic and amateurish governing style that marked the US administration before Biden that took profound delight in demonizing China, rather than working together in serious problem-solving as US administrations attempted to do for more than four decades.

Despite some serious bilateral disagreements, every sign out of Washington points to a return of predictable, high-quality decision-making in both domestic and foreign affairs by experienced craftspeople who match the capabilities of their Chinese counterparts. For four years, I’ve advocated for a return to the bilateral high-level strategic dialogues that were discontinued by the previous US administration so I was heartened that in the phone call President Xi advocated for their return.

Name calling and ad hominem character assassinations by tweet or from afar can never replace substantive, in-person discussions of issues from economics to strategy and cybersecurity. There’s much work to catch up on. In the last four years we gazed into the abyss. Either side, by accident or design, can still destroy the world. We have to escape from the throes of the Thucydides Trap as those who don’t heed the lessons and mistakes of history are sure to repeat them.

I was pleased that both leaders discussed issues for which our mutual national interests overlap including COVID-19 and the shared challenges of global health security, climate change and weapons proliferation prevention. Helping to solve these global problems is not only necessary to a healthy and peaceful community of a shared future for mankind, but also serves as a confidence-building measure to help us work together on a range of other issues of future mutual concern.

It should come as no surprise that in the call, President Biden committed to pursuing practical, results-oriented engagements where it advances the interests of the US and its allies. In that regard, President Xi, as he leads China, operates from the same playbook. As Lord Palmerston said: “In international relations, there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests.”

The call also made clear that there are areas of potentially great friction. China regards issues such as Hong Kong, South China Sea, Taiwan and Xinjiang as internal affairs, while the US sees them differently.

It’s also clear that Biden and his team puts great stock in working with US allies to confront China. He believes that it will give the US more clout but I’m unsure if he’ll get the cooperation that he needs from allies who have grown weary of the US recently and unsure of previously ironclad US guarantees. Europe, for example, is moving more independently of the US, even going so far as signing the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China in spite of US displeasure.

Biden said in a recent interview that he didn’t expect to have a war with China but he foresaw “extreme competition”. To me, this is actually a positive development. It’s much better than where the previous US administration was headed. Competition according to globally agreed-upon rules can only result in a win-win outcome. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last summer that he welcomed a race to the top with China and not to the bottom.

But the US and its allies will find competing with China will require something akin to President John Kennedy pledging to put a human on the moon in the 1960s. The US is far behind, and seeing how divided the country is, it likely doesn’t have the political will.

If Biden and US allies continue to forbid Chinese companies from having market access to their high tech resources, their strategy will only prove to be clever by half. Chinese innovators like Huawei could well be severely damaged in the short term, but on the flip side by necessity, China, used to playing the long game for millennia, will come out ahead by competing even harder and developing superior homegrown chips and other relevant technologies.

Perhaps all involved will do well to pay attention and emulate the attributes of those born in the Year of the Ox: hardworking, positive and prudent, and proceeding step by step. The phone call between Xi and Biden marks a good beginning in that critical endeavor.

From China Daily , 2021-2-12

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