‘Deep distrust’ clouds Xi-Biden agreement on nuclear talks

‘Deep distrust’ clouds Xi-Biden agreement on nuclear talks

Joe Biden and Xi Jinping’s agreement to hold nuclear “stability talks” to reduce the risk of conflict was an unexpected breakthrough at a meeting focused on stabilising US-China relations that have deteriorated to their worst state in more than four decades.

The US president opened the video session with his Chinese counterpart, which lasted more than three hours, by citing the need for “guardrails” to ensure that the two countries’ intense competition did “not veer into conflict”.

While it will be next to impossible to create safeguards over Taiwan — the country claimed by Beijing that has emerged as the most dangerous hotspot in Asia since Biden took office — extending them to the two superpowers’ emerging nuclear rivalry will also be a huge challenge.

Underscoring the long road, the White House said Jake Sullivan, national security adviser, was referring to informal talks between the powers when he disclosed the development on Tuesday.

“What we are seeking, and what Jake Sullivan spoke about, are conversations with empowered interlocutors to have serious and substantive conversations on guardrails to reduce risk or the chance of miscalculation and to address potentially destabilising dynamics”, a National Security Council spokesperson said. “That is what we have been raising for quite some time.”

Evan Medeiros, a former top White House adviser on Asia now at Georgetown University, said he was “sceptical” about the nascent nuclear initiative. “Putting ‘guardrails’ around nukes is a good idea in theory, but can it be done in practice at a time of deep distrust and rapidly growing capabilities?” Medeiros asked.

“Will Xi empower senior officials, including in the People’s Liberation Army, with the authority to have meaningful dialogues with the US about nukes, space and cyber [issues]?”

Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, also questioned the likelihood of success. “Holding talks is a necessary first step, but the real question is whether the parties have anything substantive to say to one another,” he said.

The US has tried to engage China in nuclear talks before, but those efforts failed largely because Beijing did not see the value in negotiating restraints when the US possessed a much bigger nuclear arsenal.

Over recent years the PLA has dramatically increased its nuclear weapons programme in ways that suggest China is abandoning its 50-year policy of “minimum deterrence”. The Pentagon recently said the PLA intended to quadruple its nuclear warheads to at least 1,000 by 2030.

According to Ni Lexiong, a Chinese military expert, Beijing will remain reluctant to slow its nuclear build-up so long as “the US has an overwhelming advantage”.

But he added that both sides were tired of constantly butting heads on a range of issues. “China and the US are aware it’s a lose-lose situation,” Ni said. “It is now necessary to have a dialogue. After all, neither country wants a war.”

Joe Biden and Xi Jinping during the three-hour video call
Joe Biden and Xi Jinping have different views on what constitutes a stable relationship between the US and China © AFP via Getty Images

Ryan Hass, a China expert at the Brookings Institution, said this week’s meeting may have “opened a window for both sides to test whether progress can be made in reducing strategic risk”.

Possible agreements, he added, could include “an understanding that all nuclear launch decisions must be made by humans and not artificial intelligence-enabled systems, or [refraining from] activities in space that generate orbital debris”.

Wang Chong, a foreign affairs professor at Zhejiang International Studies University, said: “The video call suggests that China-US relations have at least finally reached bottom. “Now [the relationship] is more about competition than confrontation and conflict.”

Few experts had expected the US and China to resolve their differences over Taiwan, which Beijing regularly threatens with air force sorties near the island. Biden said he supported the “one-China” policy in which the US recognises Beijing as the seat of government, while also expressing concern about Chinese military activity around Taiwan.

Underscoring the gap, however, Xi told Biden that Taiwan’s government and anyone supporting Taiwanese independence risked crossing Beijing’s “red lines” on the issue. In doing so, he added, they were “playing with fire” and would only succeed in “burning themselves”.

Kori Schake, head of foreign policy at the American Enterprise Institute, said the meeting had not produced any “meaningful constraints”. She said that while Biden had reassured Xi he backed the “one-China” policy, and Xi suggested China was patient about Taiwan, the Chinese leader had made clear how he viewed the stakes with his warning to Biden.

“Xi blamed Taiwan for the tensions and added the threat about China’s red line,” Schake said.

One conundrum facing both presidents is their different visions about what constitutes a more stable bilateral relationship. While Washington says Beijing’s behaviour on a range of issues is not that of a responsible international actor, China’s focus is on stopping what it sees as US interference in “core” interests such as Taiwan and Hong Kong, where Xi has used a tough national security law to crush the territory’s pro-democracy movement.

The groundwork for Biden and Xi’s meeting was laid last month by Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, and Yang Jiechi, the Chinese Communist party’s top foreign affairs official, at a meeting in Switzerland.

According to people familiar with their discussions, Yang told Sullivan that Xi wanted stability ahead of the annual meeting of the party’s Central Committee in November, the Beijing Winter Olympics in February and a Chinese party congress in late 2022 at which he is expected to secure an unprecedented third term in power.

“Xi is going to want to focus on domestic politics over the next year,” said Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing. “He’s going to do what he can to reduce uncertainties in US-China relations, put the relationship on a more stable footing and reduce the risk of complicating his own domestic political goals.”

Additional reporting by Xinning Liu and Emma Zhou in Beijing

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