Like Putin before him, the Chinese President sees little to fear from the leader of the free world
CON COUGHLIN, DEFENCE EDITOR. Nov 18, 2021
Arguably the most demanding part of Joe Biden’s three-and-a-half hour video summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping this week was that the meeting seemingly took place well beyond the American President’s normal bedtime. One of the worst kept secrets in Washington is how little time the US leader actually spends in the Oval Office carrying out his presidential duties, and how much time he spends resting from the labours of high office.
On a good day, Mr Biden will find time in the morning to attend the daily briefing session at the White House before participating in an undemanding evening event, such as attending a reception for the winners of the national basketball championships. Apart from that, the leader of the free world appears to spend the rest of the day sequestered away from the public eye lest he make any public gaffes, such as forgetting the names of key allies like the Australian Prime Minister. So the fact that Mr Biden did not begin his video summit with Beijing until 7.45pm DC time meant that he was surely well outside his comfort zone, being required to conduct important affairs of state well beyond his normal working hours.
Mr Biden’s semi-detached regime is not dissimilar to that of Ronald Reagan in the last years of his presidency. But at least by then Mr Reagan had set in train the events that, as Margaret Thatcher later remarked, ended the Cold War with the Soviet Union “without firing a shot”.
By contrast, all Mr Biden has to show for his first year in office is America’s catastrophic defeat in Afghanistan, a self-inflicted wound the strategic implications of which are likely to be felt for years to come.
The inherent weakness of the Biden administration, and the current incumbent’s apparent inability to fulfil the daily workload expected of him, has certainly not passed unnoticed by Washington’s rivals, as is evident from Russia’s recent conduct.
Russian President Vladimir Putin spent three hours talking over numerous global issues with Mr Biden during their summit in Geneva in June, which subsequently resulted in the US leader’s utter capitulation to Moscow on long-standing arms control demands.
Clearly, to judge by Mr Putin’s subsequent conduct, the Russian despot got the measure of Mr Biden, to the extent that he no longer feels constrained about intimidating Washington’s allies in Europe, whether massing troops close to the borders of Ukraine and Poland or threatening Europe’s energy supplies.
Now, to judge from the read-out from Monday night’s video summit between the American and Chinese leaders, it is Mr Xi’s turn to take advantage of the Biden administration’s increasing irrelevance in world affairs.
Mr Biden’s first mistake was to agree to Beijing’s request for the summit in the first place. Mr Xi is in the process of seeking a third term in office, and participating in global summits with Beijing’s superpower rival certainly helps to boost his domestic standing. Furthermore, in the build-up to the summit, Beijing has maintained its aggressive stance towards Washington, announcing an alarming increase in its nuclear arsenal and resisting appeals for improved cooperation on climate change issues.
Yet, so disinclined is Mr Biden to see Beijing as an adversary, preferring the term “competitor”, that the White House pressed on with the summit regardless in the naive hope that, simply by engaging with the Chinese leader, the meeting would somehow result in an easing of tensions. Instead, Mr Xi will have ended the meeting confident in the knowledge that, so long as Mr Biden remains in office, Beijing has little to fear from its superpower rival.
Mr Biden’s supine approach was evident from his failure even to mention the key issue that has defined Sino-US relations during the past two years: Beijing’s role in the global coronavirus pandemic that has so far claimed five million lives.
During Donald Trump’s presidency, Beijing was under constant pressure to offer more information about the origins of the virus and to come clean about what really took place during the early stages of the pandemic. Under Mr Biden the issue did not even merit a mention. The US president adopted a similarly spineless approach on issues such as Beijing’s brutal repression of millions of Muslim Uyghurs, the suppression of democracy in Hong Kong and its aggression towards Taiwan.
For his part, the pugnacious Mr Xi was hardly diplomatic, warning that Washington was “playing with fire” over its continued support for Taiwan’s independent status. As was the case following the Biden-Putin summit in June, Mr Xi will have ended Monday’s meeting confident in the belief that he has nothing to fear so long as the current US administration remains in power.
After all, if Mr Biden is not willing to hold Beijing to account for a pandemic that has created havoc across the world, he is hardly likely to defend Taiwan from Beijing’s long-standing ambition to seize control of the territory by brute force.