Finally, Biden stands up to Xi Jinping — but will it last?
After meeting with Mikhael Gorbachev for the first time in 1984, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher proclaimed, “We can do business with this man.” Five years later, the Soviet Union was no more.
President Biden touts half a dozen meetings with Chinese leader Xi Jinping over 12 years for a total of 91 hours, “more than any other leader,” and declared their talks last week “some of the most constructive and productive discussions we’ve had.” The two leaders agreed to re-open military-to-military communications to address the flow of fentanyl into the United States and to meet the challenge of artificial intelligence.
The military-to-military commitment is ephemeral at best; despite prior assurances, the Chinese periodically dial communications on and off to express satisfaction or displeasure at something America has done or not done.
After former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in 2021, for example, Beijing unleashed the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis, with extensive missile firings and a virtual blockade — its largest ever military exercise against Taiwan. Throughout the tense episode, China refused urgent calls from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Similarly, during the fraught EP-3 incident in 2001, U.S. Ambassador to China Joseph Preuher called every high-level Chinese military and civilian official he had cultivated during his two-year stint as Pacific commander to prevent escalation. Not one of his calls was answered or returned, as the crisis festered for weeks. America was forced to make two humiliating apologies before it could get its unarmed reconnaissance plane back, in crates, for a collision that a reckless Chinese fighter pilot had caused.
The second Xi commitment, curbing the flood of fentanyl precursors to the U.S., was recycled from earlier Chinese undertakings that were never fulfilled. It was similar to the broken promise Xi made to President Obama in 2013 not to militarize its artificial islands in the South China Sea. Or Beijing’s repeated commitments to reduce greenhouse gases. Or its pledges to curb North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Or its commitments to honor international rules as a condition for joining the World Trade Organization.
At his post-meeting press conference — only his third this year and his first without the company of a visiting foreign leader willing to take questions from independent reporters — Biden was asked if he still considered Xi “a dictator,” as he said in June. He responded, “Look, he is. He’s a dictator in the sense that he’s a guy who runs a country that is a communist country that’s based on a form of government totally different than ours.”
It was a refreshingly honest restatement of an uncomfortable truth — what in Washington is commonly called a “gaffe.” Yet Biden was simply reaffirming his earlier accurate assessment of Chinese communist rule (and what any minimally informed person in the world knows).
Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s pained expression suggested Biden had struck a sour note after the four-hour summit, which both leaders sought to portray as a turning back from the increasingly tense bilateral relationship over the past year. Earlier in Biden’s term, of course, Blinken’s own State Department had affirmed the Trump administration’s decision to label as genocide China’s treatment of the Uyghurs.
Despite Blinken’s discomfort, Biden could hardly have said the Chinese communists have changed their ideological commitment to “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” or that Xi himself, the most powerful and ruthless Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, has suddenly become a political reformer in the mold of Soviet leader Gorbachev.
Beijing was quick to take umbrage at Biden’s remark as “extremely erroneous, an irresponsible political maneuver.” Instead, Xi should have appreciated that in their exchange of greetings and in his welcoming remarks, Biden referred to him as “Mr. President” rather than Mr. Chairman or General Secretary, the official titles used for Xi in China. In the West, Xi prefers “president” to put him on the same political level as the democratically elected U.S. president.
Xi is well aware that the presidential title is a symbol of democratic leadership that earns the world’s respect, while dictators and tyrants are frowned upon by the international community. He knows that China’s system falls far short of the world’s standards for democratic, civilized governance as defined in the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the United Nations Convention on Civil and Political Rights.
So, Xi and his “no limits strategic partner,” fellow authoritarian Vladimir Putin, decided to change the conventional understanding of democracy, by jointly proclaiming in February of 2022, “It is only up to the people of the country to decide whether their State is a democratic one.”
In other words, tyrants like Xi and Russian leader Vladimir Putin can simply proclaim their regimes to be democratic. Biden did not sing from the same page and Beijing took offense. In the information contest that is part of Cold War II, which has been upon us for the last several years, score one for Biden and the Free World.
It remains to be seen whether his actions will follow his words or whether his staff will urge him to make some concessions to Beijing — say, on Taiwan — to salve Xi’s injured pride.
Actually, the biggest favor Biden could render Xi, the Chinese people and the world would be a clear, official U.S. declaration that America will defend Taiwan. In contrast to the policy of strategic ambiguity and doubt, it is the only sure way to deter a strategic miscalculation by Xi that could plunge China and the U.S. into a major military conflict and bring about Biden’s nightmare scenario: World War III.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved in Department of Defense discussions about the U.S. response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.
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