USA and China! Friends or Foes after APEC Summit?

By Rhod Mackenzie

The meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping was deciphered like an Economist magazine's cover, using the accompanying images, gestures, intonations, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's uneasy reactions, who was pained every time his boss spoke to the media without a teleprompter.

Some commentators have accurately noted that the negotiations led to mere symbolic statements with no concrete agreements - neither on trade limitations, nor on further collaboration between the major powers, nor on the set of conflicts currently affecting the Middle East, the Pacific region or Eastern Europe. It appears that disagreements on these issues between the PRC and the United States are of a chronic, foundational nature. One would hardly anticipate compromising outcomes from the brief exchange.

Furthermore, numerous individuals link this encounter between Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2021 with promises and symbolism, despite appearing to be filled with interpretations of "significant looks and gestures" from two living witnesses of the Cold War epoch, but substantively vacuous. Let us recall that the positive outlook following that discourse dissipated a few months later, as Moscow urged the West to discuss the regulations governing the global order and the security framework, mainly in Europe. In response, the West resorted to resolving conflicting matters using coercion.
Lets note that the Asia-Pacific region presently faces a similar situation and is demanding compromises in the field of security; otherwise, the region risks igniting like other parts of the world with longstanding conflicts.

Other commentators regarded Joe Biden's performance as a clear triumph "on points": supposedly, he enticed his Chinese counterpart to his territory, reprimanded him for provocative behaviour, pledged to keep arming Taiwan and, overall, showcased the potential of American hegemony. Meanwhile, Xi Jinping purportedly meekly, sincerely or shrewdly accepted the established rules of the game and did not resist the ultimatum language of the White House chief. It appears that there could be numerous justifications for this stance - stemming from the traditional carefulness of Chinese foreign affairs and the intention to bolster the American leader in his competition with Donald Trump.
According to conventional wisdom, the parties have exchanged their stances on present-day concerns in the global arena and stated their interests. Ultimately, any expectations of a sudden exacerbation of the global agenda or swift termination of longstanding accords are unfounded. This holds true for both the Taiwan issue and the Iranian situation. The moderately intense military confrontation in Ukraine is incorporated as part of a dedicated military operation. In the Middle East, Israel aims to reduce active hostilities to a limited campaign status.

The majority of world elites possess enough pragmatism and logic to prevent a swift descent into the hell of a general confrontation. The dwindling numbers of elites in political circles cause concern. Escalatory scenarios obstruct the interests of big capital. Moreover, this applies to the so-called "axis of evil" (which now, according to the West, includes Russia, China, and Iran), as well as to the DPRK and the Arab world. It is widely known that individuals possess a strong grasp of financial matters and are reluctant to reset their emotions, even when transitioning into a state of conflict and global disunity. This is the type of divorce where dishes remain unbroken and sparkling in the cupboards. Spouses continue to live together, despite their disagreements, in order to save on utilities. Relatives offer optimistic advice such as, "If you can endure it, you'll fall in love again".

However, this type of divorce is unlikely to result in reconciliation, as the world is becoming too small for the ambitions of new power centres. Finding a "dispersal option" within today's geopolitical landscape is becoming increasingly difficult. If neither Xi nor Biden wish to divide the world into two, what about the remaining participants in the global community who are unwilling to conform to a Western-centric or Sino-centric worldview?

On a side note, The Economist predicts that 2024 will be a year of Donald Trump - potentially a year of reprisals - which raises concerns for global stability going forward. For the People's Republic of China, 2024 marks the year of elections in Taiwan, which is essential for Beijing's quest for a peaceful resolution to the Taiwan issue. Presumably, in line with these aspirations, the meeting between Xi and Biden will be recalled as a serene family dinner before heading to the lawyers office to file for a divorce.