Physical interactions are a key part of diplomacy, especially in the age of superpower rivalry. Former US President George HW Bush once paraphrased Woody Allen, saying: “Ninety per cent of life is just showing up.” That’s why we are seeing a fierce fight between Beijing and Washington over who is more appealing to the rest of the world, as their rivalry takes the world to the brink of a new cold war. Since President Xi Jinping took power nearly a decade ago, China has surpassed the US both in terms of the number of presidential overseas trips and world leaders it receives at home. According to a study by Neil Thomas, a China analyst at the US think tank the Eurasia Group, Xi averaged 14.3 foreign visits and 9.7 countries each year between 2013 and 2019, due largely to multiple visits to the same country, such as Russia. In comparison, Donald Trump averaged 12.3 overseas trips and eight countries annually while his predecessor Barack Obama made 13.9 visits and visited 7.4 countries on average each year. US risks disaster if it continues Trump’s ‘wrong China policies’: Beijing Washington was trailing even farther behind Beijing when it came to annual visits by foreign leaders before the coronavirus pandemic broke out in late 2019. As Beijing pushes ahead with its global ambitions as its economic and political clout grows, Xi received an average of 86.9 world leaders each year, significantly higher than Obama’s 56.5 and Trump’s 27.3. Thomas concluded that Trump’s isolationist, anti-globalisation “American First” approach meant the US had never been less popular. However, things changed dramatically when China’s diplomatic activism, especially at the top level, came to an abrupt halt in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Since February, Xi has not travelled abroad or met any foreign leaders in person in Beijing. No official explanation has been provided for this change except for hints at political considerations, such as the need to keep the coronavirus out of the capital city. President Joe Biden has seized the opportunity, as he knows full well the importance of face-to-face meetings and once said that “in international relations, all politics is personal”. “You don’t have to wonder about intentions” because diplomacy is ultimately about trust, the former vice-president explained during a trip to Seoul in 2013. Biden visited Europe in June to rally support from US allies and partners to counter China in person, while trying to manage tensions with Russia’s Vladimir Putin . He has invited seven world leaders to the White House, including those from Japan, South Korea, Germany, Israel and Afghanistan. Will the time ever be right for Biden and Xi to sit down together? As the Communist Party leaders head for their annual retreat at the resort town of Beidaihe, which is famed for its internal power brokering conclaves, top US officials have launched another charm offensive to win over China’s Asian neighbours. Just days after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited India and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin’s tour of Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam, the White House announced that Vice-President Kamala Harris will visit Vietnam and Singapore soon. Beijing may need to come up with something new in the near-total absence of in-person interactions at the leadership level. Given Xi’s political dominance, personal exchanges with the Chinese leader have long been viewed around the world as indispensable in dealing with Beijing. Despite frequent foreign visits by China’s top diplomats Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi, face-to-face exchanges between Xi and his foreign counterparts can hardly be replaced by virtual meetings, especially when the world is considering ways to live with the coronavirus.