The G20 summit at Bali, Indonesia is likely to be significant if nothing else for the fact that US President Joe Biden and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping will meet bilaterally on its side-lines. Both leaders are coming off important domestic political developments. Xi last month was confirmed in his position for an unprecedented third time underlining his position as China’s most powerful ruler in decades, while Biden managed unexpectedly to stem a Donald Trump-inspired Republican Party surge at the mid-term elections last week. Both leaders will, therefore, go into their meeting with greater confidence, but that does not necessarily mean a positive outcome either in bilateral terms or for the G20 as a whole.
Even before the US mid-terms, the Chinese side had indicated interest in a meeting between the two heads of state when Xi sent the American National Committee on US-China Relations a message saying his country was willing to work with the US to find ways to overcome their current problems.[i]
On the face of it, the Chinese desire for calm in the bilateral relationship with the US makes sense. Despite his all-powerful status in China, or perhaps because of it, Xi will be under all the more pressure to deal with the fallout of a number of his domestic policies for the Chinese economy, including zero-Covid and the drive for ‘common prosperity’. The latter, ostensibly an attempt to address growing income inequalities, has in practice tried to undercut China’s vibrant private sector and increase state control over it.[ii] These economic problems have come on top of the long-running US-China trade war that started during the Trump presidency and which Biden has continued, including with a round of stringent measures announced in October against Chinese access to highly advanced semiconductor chips.[iii]
However, this move towards conciliation is also completely out of character for Xi and the CCP for several reasons.
Indeed, if there is anything that the 20th CCP Congress that concluded last month underlines, it is the strongly ideological worldview that China’s communists under Xi nurture. This worldview is one in which Marxism-Leninism is joined with a strong sense of historical and civilizational exceptionalism such that ordinary Chinese are being persuaded to not just see their country’s rise as inevitable, but to also believe that it is being opposed without reason by the US and other Western countries.[iv] Thus, hyper-nationalism is on the rise in China, perhaps best represented in the external sphere by the excessive territorial claims made against smaller neighbours, from Japan to Southeast Asia to India, as well as by the rather thin skin its diplomats now showcase through their ‘wolf-warrior’ attitudes.
In reality, though, the CCP’s central objective is to ensure its own survival and power at all costs. CCP survival has always been seen as being threatened by Western and other democracies around the world. An us-versus-them attitude in the Chinese population towards the world outside allows it, the CCP believes, to position itself as best placed to protect China’s interests. This is one reason why the Chinese have tried to intimidate countries like India with regular and large-scale transgressions along their disputed boundary for a decade now since Xi came to power; the latest of these incidents happened in the summer of 2020 and resulted in the largest casualties on both sides since their conflict of 1962. It also explains why Beijing has thrown in its lot almost completely with the Russians on the Ukraine issue.
Meanwhile, and as a consequence of China’s international behaviour under Xi, US policy discourse and approaches towards China, too, have crossed an inflection point. The Americans learned the hard way that Chinese promises made with Xi at the helm are not worth much – for example, the Chinese leader continued militarizing the South China Sea features his country had occupied despite an explicit promise in 2015 to then US president Barack Obama to not do so.[v]
There is now a consensus across the partisan divide of American politics that China under the CCP constitutes a strategic threat to American interests across the board – globally as well as domestically. The Chinese have for decades closed off their markets to foreign enterprises and fair trade by a number of non-tariff barriers – something that India, too, has been at the receiving end of – and are increasingly and actively engaged in disinformation campaigns against the US, including not least the canard that the novel coronavirus originated not in Wuhan in central China, but in an American bioweapons facility. Beijing and its interlocutors today confidently put forward the CCP’s model of economic development and governance as something for the rest of the world to follow and in clear opposition to the Western discourse on a democratic and liberal global order.[vi]
At the G20, the problem for the US is also going to be about keeping the democratic flock together and focused on the political and economic challenges from China. As German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s recent visit to China showed[vii] and as French President Emmanuel Macron’s planned visit later this month might also demonstrate, in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the Europeans seem keen to recoup their international political standing vis-à-vis the Americans. And given fears of impending economic recession, they also seem particularly unwilling to lose opportunities in the Chinese market by partnering too closely with US efforts to counter Beijing’s international bad behaviour.
Global challenges such as climate change, hunger, and disease and regional ones like the Ukraine conflict might be on the table at the G20 meeting, but the two sides are unlikely to make much progress towards resolution as the contention between the United States and China intensifies and others on the side-lines remain unable to lead and find pathways away from the US-China dyad.
About the Author
Jabin T. Jacob is an Associate Professor at the Department of International Relations and Governance Studies, Shiv Nadar University, and an Adjunct Research Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation, Delhi NCR.
Disclaimer: The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members. The APLN’s website is a source of authoritative research and analysis and serves as a platform for debate and discussion among our senior network members, experts and practitioners, as well as the next generation of policymakers, analysts and advocates. Comments and responses can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image: Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. John Richardson meets with Adm. Wu Shengli, Commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), at the PLAN headquarters in Beijing. U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Nathan Laird.