It has been too long since the United States and China saw the best in each other. Before Mr Joe Biden and Mr Xi Jinping met on Nov 14, the last time that a US president shook hands with the leader of China was more than three years ago. The Covid-19 pandemic surely contributed, but the bigger separative impulses were the nationalist strategies that were vigorously pursued by the two presidents. Washington’s decision to frame the times as a contest between democracy and autocracy, and Beijing’s seizing of the US as a declining power trying to block the rise of China, are overly simplistic and unhelpful narratives.
The three-hour meeting in Bali was a good start, if it can nudge them towards a reappraisal. Both leaders expressed a willingness to restore channels of communications and mend bilateral relations. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit China for follow-up discussions. The two leaders are uniquely newly empowered to take meaningful next steps forward. Mr Biden is buoyed by his Democratic Party’s better than expected performance in the Nov 8 midterm elections. Mr Xi, likewise, has secured a third term in office and ushered his allies into leadership positions at the 20th party congress. Can stronger leaders afford to take a broader, kinder view of each other? That is the clear hope, and there are powerful incentives to do so. Trade between the two nations was worth nearly US$720 billion (S$989 billion) in 2021 and would increase if Trump-era tariffs were dismantled. China’s market appeals to many US companies and it is the source of cheap goods to America.