The world’s media captured the essence of President Joe Biden’s latest conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Headlines included “China’s Xi Tells Biden on Taiwan ‘Those Who Play With Fire Perish By It’” from Newsweek, “Beijing warned the US not to ‘play with fire’ on Taiwan” from Fox News, “China’s Xi Warns Biden Over Taiwan as a Possible Pelosi Trip Adds to Tensions” from the Wall Street Journal.
If anyone had any doubt that America’s “unipolar moment” is over, the Xi–Biden call confirms it in the worst way. Virtually all of the reports about the call leave the impression that China’s leader had no hesitancy in warning America’s president against interfering with Taiwan. The White House’s readout of the call failed even to mention China’s warning, instead using diplomatic language about managing differences and working together where the two countries’ interests align. This is the language of detente.
China senses weakness and division in the United States, and its leaders have taken the measure of a president who stumbles over words at press conferences, whose aides repeatedly have to “walk back” his remarks, and who has an historically low approval rating among the American people. More importantly, China watched as the United States under Biden botched the pullout from Afghanistan, and Chinese leaders have read, watched, and heard America’s military and political leadership identify “white supremacists,” “domestic terrorists,” and “climate change,” not China’s rise, as the nation’s greatest national security threats.
We are living in very dangerous times. The times are reminiscent of the early 1960s, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev took the measure of President John F. Kennedy, who had botched the Bay of Pigs operation, stood by as the Soviets erected the Berlin Wall, and whom Khrushchev bullied at the Vienna Summit in June 1961. Kennedy biographer Richard Reeves remarked that at Vienna “Khrushchev walked all over [Kennedy].” Secretary of State Dean Rusk was shocked at Khrushchev’s aggressiveness toward Kennedy, especially when the Soviet leader raised the possibility of war. Historian Michael Beschloss noted that presidential aide Averell Harriman “found Kennedy ‘shattered’” by his confrontation with Khrushchev at Vienna. Kennedy himself later admitted that Khrushchev “just beat Hell out of me.” Many presidential scholars, including the late R. Gordon Hoxie (who served as president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency for more than two decades), believe that Khrushchev’s bold move to install nuclear missiles in Cuba a year later stemmed from his assessment of Kennedy’s lack of resolve during the Bay of Pigs and the construction of the Berlin Wall, and Kennedy’s poor performance at the Vienna summit.
Like Kennedy during the Bay of Pigs, Biden miserably failed his first test of foreign policy leadership in Afghanistan. Like Kennedy at Vienna, Biden was on the receiving end of his adversary’s rhetorical bullying during the recent call with Xi. Like Khrushchev at Vienna, Xi during the Biden call was the aggressor, issuing warnings over Taiwan while the White House spoke of “differences” and areas of alignment between the two world powers.
It is unlikely that Biden will be as introspective as Kennedy was — don’t expect Biden to admit that Xi “beat the Hell out of him.” But it appears that this is what transpired during the lengthy call. The big question is whether Xi’s assessment of Biden will result in China upping the ante over Taiwan the way Khrushchev did over Cuba. We may be on the verge of the most dangerous foreign policy crisis since 1962.