The Hill

How China Uses Summits to Advance Its Real Agenda

Senior Fellow and Director, China Center
United States President Joe Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders' week in Woodside, California, on November 15, 2023. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
United States President Joe Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders' week in Woodside, California, on November 15, 2023. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

The leaders of the Chinese Communist Party have long harbored a peculiar passion for summits. Often labeled “strategic dialogues” between China and its major adversaries, these meetings are rarely meant to solve any specific issues. More often, the CCP uses them as platforms to salvage its domestic credibility, to promote its global vision — and to hoodwink other world leaders into accepting Beijing’s narratives and policy frameworks.

This week’s much-hyped meeting between Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden — on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco — is no exception.

Xi is not the first Chinese leader to use international gatherings to lend legitimacy to his beleaguered regime at home. Mao’s Cultural Revolution ravaged China and degraded his legitimacy to rule in the eyes of many Chinese people. President Richard Nixon’s epic 1972 Beijing summit lent the murderous Mao credibility and helped restore legitimacy among his oppressed subjects. The domestic significance of the leader of the free world making a pilgrimage to see the Great Chairman was enormous, and was spun by Mao to augment his domestic authority. Similar strategic dialogues between discredited Chinese leaders and the U.S. president in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre helped the CCP regain political legitimacy and credibility at home.

Xi Jinping, like many of his predecessors, also faces a credibility crisis on the home front. His ruinous Covid controls and inept fiscal policies have brought China’s economy to the brink of a meltdown. Disenchantment among the Chinese people with Xi’s reckless and ruthless dictatorship is almost tangible.

Thus it is easy to see why Xi would so eagerly seek a summit with the current leader of the free world — to alleviate his paranoia over the mounting domestic anger directed at his dictatorship. He seeks to send the message to his caged people — aided by the CCP’s relentless propaganda machine — that their supreme leader is respected, even revered, on the global stage.

Xi’s San Francisco rendezvous could also allow him to promote his own domestic image as a global guarantor of stability. Unlike Mao and Deng Xiaoping, who ruled when China was less advanced economically, militarily, and technologically, Xi has promoted himself as a world leader, positioning him as the global head of a “community of common destiny for all mankind.” He no doubt views an international forum such as the APEC Summit as a golden opportunity for the CCP’s self-promotion. It is in this light that his Foreign Ministry’s spokesman, Wang Wenbin, has sought to elevate this week’s meeting to colossal levels of significance, telling the international press last Friday that the summit would be “of strategic, all-dimensional, and direction-redefining importance.”

Yet as much as Xi wishes to use the APEC summit to bolster his own domestic standing, he also wishes to demoralize America’s major allies in the Indo-Pacific. U.S. treaty allies such as the Philippines, Japan and South Korea, as well as India, Vietnam and Taiwan, are harassed and intimidated by the CCP’s modernized military on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. By hobnobbing in San Francisco with the president of the United States, the only nation capable of seriously countering Chinese aggression, Xi aims to belittle America’s allies and degrade their will to resist.

The timing of this week’s summit is also carefully planned to reinforce the CCP strategy of “Using Confrontation to Promote Cooperation.” This strategy hinges on the Leninist paranoia that Washington conspires to destroy China through a two-pronged approach of “engagement plus containment.” China’s recent deliberate and provocative confrontations with the U.S. — harassing U.S. aircraft and Navy vessels in the South China Sea and the ongoing military intimidation campaigns against Taiwan, to name just two — are designed to induce anxiety in Washington to extract key strategic concessions from the confrontation-averse White House.

Xi knows that his American counterpart has long sought the establishment of a military-to-military hotline to avoid strategic miscalculation. Indeed, this summer, President Biden rushed Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing to address this very issue. Xi sees this as a point of vulnerability waiting to be exploited.

Xi knows how much history the current administration has forgotten: all past military hotlines with Beijing have proven futile. In the 1999 Belgrade embassy bombing crisis and the 2001 incident involving a collision between a U.S. EP-3 aircraft and a Chinese interceptor jet, military leaders in Beijing simply refused to answer the phone calls from Washington. Even if Xi Jinping agrees to set up a hotline in San Francisco, the chances that his generals would answer it in times of crisis are most likely to be zero. 

The list of serious issues between the U.S. and China is long and comprehensive — yet all these issues have already been repeatedly discussed for years. The CCP simply does not have the willingness to seriously engage, let alone change. Instead, the Party uses high profile forums like this week’s APEC Summit in San Francisco to bolster its image.

American leaders are accustomed to engaging China only at the transactional level, where they seek specific and immediate results. But CCP leaders deal with their adversaries on a doctrinal and strategic level, evincing little care for concrete actions.

Xi Jinping is coming to this week’s summit not to discuss specific issues, but to advance his global vision in accordance with the policies of the Chinese Communist Party. Washington should see China’s approach for what it is. Instead of allowing Xi to use yet another summit to promote the CCP’s agenda, the Biden administration should approach this week’s gathering with an understanding of how Xi aims to use it, and with realistic expectations about America’s ability to change China’s authoritarian regime.

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