AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
When President Joe Biden meets with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Wednesday, he will have an opportunity to take a strong stance toward the communist country and use China’s precarious economic condition to pressure Xi into making concessions on trade and other matters up for discussion. But if Biden’s past deference to Beijing is any indication, China will likely once again emerge as the winner of any negotiations.
Biden’s talk with Xi will be the first face-to-face meeting between the two leaders since the G20 summit in Bali last November. Since then, China has ramped up its aggression throughout the world, including repeated incursions of Taiwanese airspace, floating a spy balloon across the U.S. mainland, and dispatching warships to the Middle East following Hamas’s attack on Israel.
Nonetheless, China and Xi may now be at their most vulnerable point in years, even with Xi being elected to an unprecedented third term as president in March. China’s economy is afflicted by slow growth, high youth unemployment, and a struggling property market. A ruthless centralization campaign undertaken by Xi and ruinous COVID-19 lockdown policies are clearly taking a serious toll on both the Chinese economy and the Chinese people’s morale.
The shaky situation has placed Xi in a potentially hazardous position. Even with the current struggles of the American economy, it still appears in 2023 as if China needs the United States more than the United States needs China. This is in large part due to former President Donald Trump’s withering campaign of sanctions and tariffs that had, prior to the pandemic, brought Beijing to the negotiating table and led to a “phase one” trade agreement that extracted major concessions from Xi’s government.
Trump left Biden a prime opportunity to strongarm China into accepting more U.S. demands. But thus far he and his administration have utterly failed to capitalize on Trump’s momentum.
Dr. Jean-Francis Wang, a formerly high-ranking member of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) security apparatus who defected, told this author that although Beijing’s domestic power may be at its lowest point in decades, at least since the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, that makes Xi all the more dangerous, as he is more determined than ever to put on the mask of a strongman and villainize his enemies.
“It’s the usual trick,” Dr. Wang said, explaining that the party’s propaganda arms will be more determined than ever to tarnish the image of the United States worldwide. “America is seen as the villain and China the solution, although the truth is precisely the opposite.”
Dr. Wang also pointed to the CCP’s “diplomacy of whispers and rumors” that have created severe hurdles for U.S. relations with governments in Africa and Latin America. Beijing notably joined with several other nations this year to launch a “BRICS” currency that is intended to directly challenge the Dollar’s supremacy in global trade and finance. China has also meddled in the domestic political affairs of nations like Brazil and Argentina.
The Biden administration’s mismanagement of Trump’s sanctions and tariffs designed to squeeze the CCP is Xi’s greatest advantage right now, Dr. Wang told me. “The CCP launched a full-on attack from the start. They knew Biden is not Trump, he is weak, and it worked even better than they expected.”
Dr. Chen Xingyun, another defector who previously worked for the International Department of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, China’s de facto Foreign Ministry, told this author that the CCP views Biden as a pushover who can easily be pressured into accepting terms favorable to Beijing in any negotiation.
Dr. Chen pointed specifically to an account of the Biden-Xi meeting in Bali last year published by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which states that Biden affirmed, “The United States respects China’s system, and does not seek to change it. The United States does not seek a new Cold War, does not seek to revitalize alliances against China, does not support ‘Taiwan independence,’ does not support ‘two Chinas’ or ‘one China, one Taiwan,’ and has no intention to have a conflict with China. The U.S. side has no intention to seek ‘de-coupling’ from China, to halt China’s economic development, or to contain China.”
Although Biden’s State Department did not confirm the Chinese government’s interpretation of the negotiations, it also did not deny the report. Dr. Chen emphasized that this apparent capitulation to Beijing was particularly alarming when it comes to Taiwan, and created the expectation in China that the U.S. would cease political and military support for the island nation.
Dr. Chen also referenced the history of the Chinese Civil War – which Xi knows well – as a parallel for what could happen today.
During World War II, the warring Nationalist and Communist factions inside China temporarily ceased hostilities in order to fight against Japanese invaders. The leader of the Nationalists, Chiang Ka’i-Shek, led the joint forces and initially enjoyed support from U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
However, frustrations led Roosevelt to eventually limit aid for Chiang, and when the civil war resumed after the Japanese surrender, Chiang retreated to Taiwan. As Dr. Chen explained, Xi could now be hoping that Biden will “do with the pro-independence political leaders in Taiwan what Roosevelt did with Chiang – he empowered him, and he dethroned him.”
While Biden has not yet explicitly said that he is ready to abandon Taiwan, he has unequivocally emboldened Xi Jinping. The world can likely expect more of the same during the meeting between the two leaders this week.
Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian, and researcher.