There could not have been a better setting for the 30th meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum in San Francisco, with the two most powerful leaders of the world, Joe Biden of the United States and Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China, getting down to business and looking seriously at the problems confronting the two nations.
It is not as if Washington and Beijing have finally turned a page in bilateral relations, but the simple fact is that the two nations have set in motion the broad parameters of exchanges for mutual benefit. Agreeing to keep the lines of communication open and on the imperative of military-to-military exchanges are important takeaways for countries that have long been mired in talking indirectly, through third countries or the media.
President Xi’s charm offensive did not stop with his American counterpart. The Chinese leader had a frank and useful exchange with business leaders as also in a bilateral sit down with the Prime Minister of Japan, Fumio Kishida. Again, Xi and Kishida have different sets of issues to grapple with, but it was important that the two found time. Also, Xi’s interactions with Indo-Pacific nations included individual talks with leaders of Mexico, Peru, Fiji and Brunei.
There were personal moments in the four-hour Biden-Xi meeting. The American President reminding Xi to pick up a birthday present for his wife that happened to be on the day of the summit on November 20; and Biden walking down memory lane by showing a picture stored in his cellphone of a younger Xi posing with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background in his first visit to America in 1985. A reminder that meetings of leaders need not be dull and dour.
It had been a year since Presidents Xi and Biden met. The United States and China have been moving further apart on many issues and in a legitimate concern that with Beijing getting closer to Moscow, things are only drifting instead of any conscious decision for a course correction. And Xi is quite aware that the United States is slowly getting into the full steam of Presidential elections politics where candidates will work overtime on rhetorics showing off who is “more tough” on China.
There is no question that nations will have to interact with one another in spite of differences. At the same time this interaction must come with a realization that it cannot be a one-way street. It is quite alright for President Xi to explore several avenues of cooperation with the Asia Pacific or the Indo Pacific. But China’s leader must understand that nations in the region too have to pursue their national interests, which need not be the same as those of Beijing.
What is mine is mine, and what is yours is also mine, is something that does not work these days in international relations. For that matter, working to overturn established norms of international law or unilaterally redrawing maps is not exactly helping in the easing of tensions in the international system. World leaders ought to realise that practicing virtues before preaching may be a good beginning.