Chinese leadership has a history of surprising unexpected events. In 1955, Chairman Mao Zedong secretly conferred with the US when China supported the North Vietnamese regime. After the Tiananmen Square Incident in 1989, Deng Xiaoping’s ‘Southern Tour’ highlighted China’s economic reforms. President Xi Jinping’s trip to the US for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit was a significant event, amid tensions over trade, technological contestation, the South China Sea, and Taiwan.
The summit between US President Joe Biden and Xi aims to build “guardrails” in their relationship to prevent conflict. The belief is that economic uncertainties at home will temper China’s aggression abroad and that an engaged China will help untangle intractable international disputes. Beijing may feel the need to re-engage with the US, which has been trying to reduce its economic interdependence. Xi’s continuance depends on his ability to deliver a strong and prosperous China by 2049. In the Biden era, the focus is on ‘de-risking’, which involves building resilient supply chains. The West’s approach has included export restrictions on semiconductor technology and curbs on outbound investment in advanced technology sectors in China.
China’s Central National Security Commission has expressed a difficult situation in national security and calls for preparation to face worst-case scenarios. China faces challenges from unilateral trade protection, rejecting competition in Sino-US dynamics, arguing confrontation and a cold war are inevitable. Instead, China proposes accommodating each other’s development and mutual prosperity, given the complexity of the world.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has stated that China’s rise is intrinsically peaceful and does not intend to challenge or replace the US. He also asserts that China has gained most from the current international order and is ready to defend it. However, the Communist Party of China’s official newspaper during the BRICS summit decried the same international order as an anachronism of a bygone era, positing that China’s development initiatives and lending institutions were more egalitarian.
Xi is focusing on consolidating a rival international framework by investing in BRICS and SCO, while skipping significant diplomatic engagements like the G20 summit.
China’s confidence in projecting influence abroad may stem from the perceived superiority of the Communist Party’s governance system. However, this denouement may indicate China’s continued reliance on the international order. The US and the world may not accept a sobering-down Xi, but China may seek more time to build its military and economic muscle.
China’s brinksmanship in the South China Sea may test American power, as it reclaimed features and militarised them despite backlash. China’s proposal to accommodate each other’s development and emphasize common interests may signal respect for American interests elsewhere if Asia is ceded as a Chinese sphere of influence. India’s question is what China means when it says the US’s “Indo-Pacific strategy” is getting unpopular. The Biden-Xi summit was preceded by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s visit to Beijing, Japanese PM Fumio Kishida’s meeting with Xi, and plans to resume the China-Japan-South Korea trilateral. India will need to monitor how its Quad partners hedge their bets with respect to China.