On August 23, the Post
reported that Xi is considering skipping the trip
to Rome and instead participating in the summit via video link. Readouts from the September 9 phone call between the two leaders did not offer any indication that a meeting is on the horizon.
This would be a missed opportunity. With this year’s meeting of the leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum being held virtually, 2021 offers no more venues for top-level in-person gatherings where the two leaders can meet on the sidelines.
To be sure, Biden and Xi can agree to a special meeting in a neutral location in the same format as Biden’s summit with Vladimir Putin
in Geneva, in June. But, under the current political conditions, such a meeting would be difficult to orchestrate.
The Geneva summit was initiated at Biden’s request, for which he was rebuked by Republicans. The chance of him extending a similar invitation to Xi, risking a humiliating Chinese snub, is nil.
Moreover, both sides have reasons to distrust each other when it comes to high-level meetings. Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou
was arrested while Xi was dining with then US president Donald Trump, during the 2018 G20 summit in Argentina. A year later, shortly before his meeting with Xi at the G20 summit in Japan, Trump threatened China with more tariffs
This year, the Biden administration enacted sanctions
on China over Hong Kong while China’s top diplomats Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi were on their way to the summit in Alaska.
China has delivered its own share of unpleasant surprises. It was slow to offer Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman
a suitable counterpart for a meeting during her China visit. Special presidential envoy John Kerry, who travelled to Tianjin this month hoping to meet top Chinese officials, was granted a meeting with Wang but only via videoconference
, something he could have done from home.
Such mutual blindsiding has dampened the two leaders’ appetite to take a risk of facing anything that might have the semblance of humiliation. That leaves the option of a stand-alone meeting in the realm of theory.
If a Rome meeting does not pan out, the next realistic venue would be the 2022 G20 summit in Bali. By then, the world could have turned upside down. Moreover, in the months leading up to Bali, both leaders will be much more constrained by their respective political travails.
Xi will be preoccupied with his re-election for a third term
at the 20th Party Congress, while Biden will be fighting to preserve the Democrats’ majority
in Congress. Both will be compelled to show toughness rather than goodwill, and there will be less room for accommodation.
The importance of a face-to-face meeting between the world’s two most powerful leaders at such a delicate historical moment cannot be overstated. To be sure, most of the disagreements between China and the US cannot be resolved over a short conversation but, as was the case with Putin
in Geneva, such meetings offer opportunities for de-escalation
, an improved atmosphere and the creation of a positive agenda.
A Xi-Biden meeting would also go a long way in reassuring a world anxious about the prospects of a new cold war
, let alone a hot one, that the two co-pilots of the world economy are not only on speaking terms but are also doing all they can to prevent relations from deteriorating further.
If Xi had concerns that he would be stepping into a lion’s den by going to Rome, with G20 members spearheaded by Biden ganging up on him, such concerns are now less valid. The chaotic withdrawal of Nato forces from Afghanistan, the seeming collapse of nuclear talks
with Iran and the budding Russian-Chinese alliance have shifted the international balance of power.
China can no longer be cornered by the democratic bloc within the G20 or presented as the source of most of the world’s problems. In the wake of the debacle in Kabul, Biden is domestically embattled and cracks seem to be appearing in his alliance of democracies.
On the other hand, China’s star has risen in recent weeks. On most of the burning international issues – North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan, Covid-19, climate change
and post-pandemic economic recovery
– it has emerged as an important part of the solution.
As the old saying goes, if you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu. A no-show by Xi in Rome would be self-defeating for China but, even more so, it would cement the world’s perception that the only two men who can steer the world away from the abyss missed an important opportunity to do so. Meeting in Rome is the least they can do to quell such perceptions.
Gal Luft is co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security and professor in Ostim Technical University