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A Missed Opportunity in Bali

The summit between US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, was, at best, a public-relations effort to provide a brief respite in the ominous progression of conflict escalation. But there was no substance, no strategy, and no path to de-escalation.

NEW HAVEN – Leader-to-leader summits have long been portrayed as the crown jewels of diplomacy. Such was the hope with the November 14 meeting in Bali between US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, on the eve of the annual G20 meeting.

Notwithstanding the images of two beaming presidents grasping hands before their three-hour meeting, the Bali summit accomplished little. Predictably, it was long on rhetoric. Biden “absolutely” ruled out any possibility of a new cold war, and Xi stressed the need to put the US-China relationship back on track. Post-summit readouts from both sides stressed the usual platitudes of frank, direct, and candid discussions between old friends. 

But, with the US-China conflict having escalated dramatically in the past five years – from a trade war, to a tech war, to the early skirmishes of a new cold war – the Bali summit was remarkably short on action. The bilateral relationship had deteriorated further in the three months leading up to the summit – underscored by Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, congressional passage of the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Biden administration’s aggressive sanctions on exports of advanced semiconductors to China. America’s hardline approach toward China was on a collision course with China’s increasingly muscular intransigence.