Depending on who you ask, the recent meeting between US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Chinese President Xi Jinping, has had some mixed outcomes. While it appears that there has been some degree of a “reset” between the world’s superpowers, it remains to be seen if the key sticking points have been overcome.
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Whether for ill or good, the relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China has rapidly emerged as the key defining geopolitical, economic, and strategic “situationship” of the 21st century.
While this “situationship” is rapidly shaking the foundations of the post-Second World War order, it is just the latest incarnation of the historical norm that is defined by multipolar rivalry between great empires and great powers.
Unlike the Cold War, which was largely characterised by the ideological wrestling match between the revolutionary Marxist Communist, Soviet-led world and the Liberal Capitalist, US-led world, this current incarnation of multipolar competition is far more holistic in its nature.
Fast forward to today and the jubilation and hubris which characterised the years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union has now transformed into a far less optimistic vision of the future, as once again, great power competition and multipolarity are alive and well.
Despite this competition becoming increasingly tense, particularly as Xi Jingping’s China continues to expand it’s economic, political, and strategic influence across Central Asia, the Indo-Pacific, Africa, and increasingly in the Middle East, both parties are in some ways seeking to discuss the key points of contention.
However, it isn’t all good news despite the renewed period of dialogue between the two global superpowers and their leaders, with recent meetings in San Francisco between US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, yielding mixed results, especially depending on who you ask.
Being realistic, hopeful about renewed dialogue, but still a while to go
For both parties, productive dialogue has been strained in recent years, with both engaging in the equivalent of drunken name calling from the opposite side of the bar.
However, it appears that both the United States and People’s Republic of China have recognised that there needs to be a shift in their approach to one another and the competition between the two powers.
In particular, the renewed commitment by both nations to engage in high level military-to-military dialogue as a mechanism for engaging early and engaging often to reduce the potential for misinterpretation and miscalculation has emerged as a key outcome from the leaders’ dialogue.
Indeed, US Secretary for Defense Lloyd Austin celebrated the renewed dialogue, stating, “As you know, we had been open to meeting with [Chinese leaders] here in Jakarta, but we’re encouraged by recent news from the White House on the planned resumption of military-to-military communications.”
Unpacking the importance of this further, Secretary Austin added, “What I will say is that we will continue to need the mechanism to manage crises and make sure we prevent things from spiralling out of control from time to time. That’s even more important if activities in the region have increased – if unhelpful things like close intercepts ... have increased.”
Despite this “progress”, President Joe Biden’s official White House communique sought to reinforce the reality that the US and China remain in a period of competition, with the US Administration seeking to remain realistic, stating, “President Biden emphasised that the United States and China are in competition, noting that the United States would continue to invest in the sources of American strength at home and align with allies and partners around the world.
“He stressed that the United States would always stand up for its interests, its values, and its allies and partners. He reiterated that the world expects the United States and China to manage competition responsibly to prevent it from veering into conflict, confrontation, or a new Cold War.”
Unpacking this further, the US stressed the importance of renewed dialogue, stating, “The two leaders welcomed the resumption of high-level military-to-military communication, as well as the US-China Defense Policy Coordination Talks and the US-China Military Maritime Consultative Agreement meetings. Both sides are also resuming telephone conversations between theatre commanders.”
For Chinese President Xi Jinping, he recognised the importance of the relationship between the two superpowers and the nature of competition between the two powers but stressed the importance of continued engagement and dialogue.
President Xi told reporters, “The China–US relationship, which is the most important bilateral relationship in the world, should be perceived and envisioned in a broad context of the accelerating global transformations unseen in a century. It should develop in a way that benefits our two peoples and fulfils our responsibility for human progress.
“China–US relationship has never been smooth sailing over the past 50 years and more, and it always faces problems of one kind or another. Yet, it has kept moving forward amid twists and turns. For two large countries like China and the United States, turning their back on each other is not an option. It is unrealistic for one side to remodel the other, and conflict and confrontation has unbearable consequences for both sides,” President Xi explained.
However despite this seeming breakthrough between the two leaders, big questions remain.
‘He’s a dictator’, the Taiwan question and ‘Planet Earth is big enough’ for the two of us
It wasn’t all optimism and back patting; however, as President Biden reinforced the reality of China’s political system and Xi Jinping’s unabashed autocratic rule over the world’s rising superpower.
“Look, he is. He’s a dictator in the sense that he’s a guy who runs a country that is a communist country,” President Biden told reporters, much to the chagrin of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken who visibly winced when hearing the statement.
One of the central concerns for the US and its post-Second World War order is the continued antagonism and hostility, particularly in the Western Pacific and around Taiwan, which continues to serve as a key potential flash point for the two superpowers.
This concern only becomes more relevant when one considers the recent hostile actions against the Royal Australian Navy frigate, HMAS Toowoomba by a People’s Liberation Army-Navy destroyer, Ningbo (DDG-139) off the coast of Japan on 14 November.
And here we find the crux of the matter as Xi Jinping reinforced his wishes for the US and it’s regional partners, including Australia, to remain cautious of intervening in and defending Taiwan in the event of a Chinese forcible reunification.
Nevertheless, President Xi did seemingly “rule out” an act of aggression towards Taiwan and reunifying the two populations. But he didn’t pull any punches when warning President Biden, with Chinese state media citing Xi unequivocally saying, “The US side should … stop arming Taiwan, and support China’s peaceful reunification ... China will realise reunification, and this is unstoppable.”
In response, President Biden reinforced the commitment of the US to the “One China Policy” and cited it’s enduring place in US–China policy making since Nixon opened Mao’s China to the West in the early-1970s.
All of this combined to reinforce President Xi’s statement that the world is indeed big enough for the two nations to peacefully co-exist, provided certain “conditions” and “accommodations” were made by the United States and its partners, namely, as President Xi stated, “For two large countries like China and the United States, turning their back on each other is not an option. It is unrealistic for one side to remodel the other, and conflict and confrontation has unbearable consequences for both sides...
“Planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed, and one country’s success is an opportunity for the other,” President Xi said.
The question now becomes, at what cost should we make these concessions to ensure “peace in our time”?
If Australia is going to survive and thrive in this new era, Australia’s policymakers and the public are going to have to accept that while the world is increasingly becoming “multipolar”, the Indo-Pacific, in particular, is rapidly becoming the most hotly contested region in the world.
All of this is underpinned by the emerging economic, political, and strategic might of powers like China, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Vietnam, and the established and re-emerging capability of both South Korea and Japan in particular, are serving to create a hotbed of competition on our doorstep.
Recognising this array of challenges and opportunities, both the Australian public and its policymakers urgently need to look beyond the myopic lens that has traditionally dominated our diplomatic, strategic, and economic policymaking since Federation.
Ultimately, we need to see Australia begin to play the long game to fully capitalise on the opportunities currently transforming the Indo-Pacific.
The most important question now becomes, when will we see a more detailed analysis and response to the challenges and opportunities facing Australia and when will we see both a narrative and strategy that better helps industry and the Australian public understand the challenges faced and opportunities we have presented before us?
As events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political, and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power, or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?
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