The US President Joe Biden and the Chinese President Xi Jinping met on the “sidelines” for over four hours of the 2023 APEC conference in San Francisco on November 15. They agreed that the current situation where neither side was communicating on military matters was dangerous. This situation came about because China had cut off communication, resulting in some potentially inflammable close encounters. The two countries do have something called the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement and the decision last week was under that agreement. It had been used to improve safety in the air and on the sea. But in 2020 China went into a sulk and stopped talking.
So the US has been saying that Beijing has “denied, cancelled or ignored” military-to-military communications. Now these communications will be restored — Xi willing — so that the two countries don’t accidentally start fighting. That wouldn’t suit China at all. However, it seems all interactions will be conducted “on the basis of equity and respect” according to a statement released by China Central Television, the state broadcaster. That was to reassure the Chinese people — in the unexpected case that their view mattered — that the US and China were now equals and that the hard line taken by China since 2020 had forced the US to acknowledge a truth that the rest of the world already knew.
But who actually blinked first? It’s not difficult to say who because regardless of what China may claim to its own people, it’s nowhere near being an equal to the US. Truth be told, Biden has tightened the screws on Xi far more than his predecessor, Donald Trump, who started the “let’s show them” policy in 2017. The hardest blow has been the set of US laws that deny China critical technology. Simultaneously, in an unprecedented move, the spy chiefs of the five-eye countries have warned the American and European people that China is stealing everything in sight, including personal data. The US has thus roped in the people as well into the conflict which has been confined to trade, investment and military till now. So in a nutshell, even though Trump’s ‘decoupling’ has become Biden’s ‘de-risking’, the pressure on China has now become enough to bring it to something akin to normal international conduct. Other countries will draw their own conclusions. They are in any case coming together to call Xi’s bluff.
So why did Xi, who is not known to give up easily, agree to back down? The economy is doing very poorly. The military is not what Chinese propaganda says it is. It’s untested, too. And with Xi having crushed all opposition and being fed only what he wants to hear, domestic discontent against him appears to be building up. Of course, it’s entirely possible that China is buying time. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that it has lost this round.