Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden take a walk after their talks in the Filoli Estate in the U.S. state of California, November 15, 2023. [Photo/Xinhua]
By Stephen Ndegwa
The highly anticipated meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden on November 15 local time in Woodside, California, as a curtain raiser to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in San Francisco, lived up to its billing. There were few pleasantries from either side of the table, underscoring the somber prospects if the two largest economies in the world do not reach a mutual understanding on the way forward.
It was reported that the meeting was the first in a series of meetings that will take place on the sidelines of the APEC forum. This underscores the fact that the issues facing the China-U.S. bilateral relationship are weighty, and there is need to ensure that the two sides cover sufficient ground in order to reduce the piled up baggage that has created tension not just between them, but around the world.
Amid these differences, the meeting went on with the understanding that each side would keep to its lane. Xi's remark about the need for "respect" as a foundation for normalization of relations spoke volumes about the real cause of misunderstanding between China and the U.S. In his words, "it's unrealistic for one side to remodel the other."
As Xi put it, "China-U.S. relationship has never been smooth sailing over the past 50 years and more, and that it always faces problems of one kind or another. Yet it has kept moving forward amid twists and turns." As two of the largest economies in the world, the destiny of both countries is intertwined. But that does not mean that the duo has to read from the same script as dictated by one side. The two countries have their unique social, cultural, economic and development paths that have worked for each of them.
In an apparent reference to the U.S. hegemonic ways, Xi said that Planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed, and one country's success is an opportunity for the other. Moreover, with their massive power and wealth, the world is looking at both leaders to offer leadership not just during crises, but also acting as a source for the public good.
Xi's message centered on the fact that no country has a monopoly of ideas and power, and the U.S. should allow other countries to pursue development paths that are best suited to their historical, cultural and national conditions.
Xi attempted to thaw the ice in order to allow a relaxing of nerves by its partner as a build up to the subsequent closed-door sessions in the course of the APEC summit. The mood after the meeting was calm as it was initially, suggesting that the jury is still out on the substantive issues. Still, good progress was made by the two sides agreeing to establish a working group on counter-narcotics cooperation, resuming high-level military-to-military communication, and agreeing to pursue discussions on Artificial Intelligence.
Xi's remarks on the Taiwan question were unequivocal, stressing that it was "the most important and most sensitive issue" in China-U.S. relations. This means that any opposition to China's major legitimate claim to its territory and any opposition to Taiwan's reunification with the motherland can only mean that the superpower is double faced, and has no goodwill towards mutual respect of China's sovereignty and normalization of ties.
Ultimately, China and the U.S. must recognize that similar to the theme of the ongoing APEC forum, they need to create a resilient and sustainable future for all. Even when there seems to be no way out of the current quagmire, the two powerful countries cannot give up on "the most important bilateral relationship in the world." To summarize it through Xi's opening remarks, both countries "shoulder heavy responsibilities for the two peoples, for the world, and for history."
Stephen Ndegwa, a special commentator on current affairs for CGTN, is the executive director of South-South Dialogues, a Nairobi-based communications development think tank.