Thu. May 26th, 2022

In the west wing of the White House, President Joe Biden sat with his hands folded at the tip of the table.

Two TV screens, backed up on temporary stands, sent a live feed of his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, to space – and the globe – from the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

Despite being almost two years into the new world of coronavirus-induced global diplomacy, it still feels underplayed and somewhat strange that a meeting of such significance would take place in this way.

All the usual comforts of deeply entrenched relationships and conveyor belts were exchanged, but there was much for these two global superpowers to discuss, and not much of it is particularly pleasing.

The call, which was launched at Mr Biden’s request, reflects his administration’s deep concern that the chances of keeping the conflict in check with Beijing may diminish.

The virtual summit, which comes at a time of heightened tensions between the two nations, is the third time Mr Biden has spoken to Mr Xi since taking office.

This is the first time this year they have spoken face to face, albeit via video hooking.

The smoldering tensions between the United States and China

In true American fashion, Mr. Biden quickly came to his feet and the parameters of the meeting were set.

Sir. Biden told Mr Xi that in order to ensure that the two countries do not fall into conflict: “We need to establish some common sense.”

Joe Biden smiles with his hand on Xi Jinping's shoulder
Tensions between the two leaders have been high recently due to disagreements over Hong Kong, Taiwan and ongoing trade disputes. (Reuters: David McNew)

Though more subtle, with messages tucked between the lines, Mr. Xi struck a similarly conciliatory tone, extending the joy of calling Mr. Biden “my old friend.”

Without a doubt, the couple had a lot to discuss.

The past few months’ relationship between the world’s two largest economies has resounded with echoes of Cold War-like behavior.

In a demonstration of military muscle, Beijing last month flew a record number of planes into the airspace near Taiwan, just to prove that it could eventually use force to take control of the island.

The United States announced that it would supply nuclear submarine technology to Australia, with the prospect of its submarines appearing, undiscovered, along the Chinese coast.

Scott Morrison places with Joe Biden in space-out chairs in front of American and Australian flags
Joe Biden, Boris Johnson, Scott Morrison announced the surprising alliance in September.(AP: Evan Vucci)

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison described the need to become a nuclear weapon, driven by the threat posed by China in the Indo-Pacific.

So when Mr Biden called for a summit with Mr Xi, it undoubtedly attracted the attention of national and international media.

The biggest problem of all is one small island

Much of what was discussed at the three-hour summit will remain behind closed doors.

But the fact that this meeting has taken place at all between the world’s two most powerful leaders tells you that they hope to lessen tensions.

Taiwan was the front and center of both global powers, just for different reasons.

Beijing wants Washington to do without what they classify as domestic affairs.

Sir. Biden has already publicly stated that the United States will defend Taiwan if attacked by China, deviating from a long-standing foreign policy stance of “strategic ambiguity” that kept Washington’s position vague.

An elderly Taiwanese woman in mask with 'Keep Going Taiwan' while her face is hidden by a Taiwanese mask
The biggest point of contention between the United States and China is Taiwan. (Reuters: Pichi Chuang)

Before the White House could organize itself to brief Washington reporters after the marathon negotiations, Chinese state media took the plunge and began leaking statements from Mr Xi’s speeches.

Was anything achieved?

While the meeting was about repairing ties, Mr Xi fired warning signals across the bow, describing the two countries as “two ships that should not collide”.

He also added that China will have to take decisive action if “Taiwan’s independence forces cross the red line”.

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Senior officials in Washington briefing reporters said the two leaders discussed Taiwan at length.

But nothing new was agreed.

Instead, Mr Biden reaffirmed US support for the One China Policy, which recognizes only one Chinese government.

It could be seen as yet another concession to Beijing.

Without seeing the two leaders interact in person, it is difficult to draw conclusions about how it went from body language.

There was no major breakthrough in terms of relationships or agreements to ease tensions.

But one of the few areas the two leaders agree on is that it would be a mistake of historical proportions to let the relationship worsen further.

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