Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
It took two years after Joe Biden was elected US President before the leaders of the world’s two most powerful countries could finally speak in person, but when Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping finally met in Bali, Indonesia, on Monday on the sidelines of the G20 summit, the timing could not have been any better for the United States, for democracy and for the world.
With democracy suddenly looking like it’s on firmer ground and key autocracies facing serious problems, it was an ideal moment for Biden to speak frankly to Xi about areas of disagreement between the two superpowers while trying to build safeguards to prevent the rivalry from careening into conflict as the relationship has deteriorated to its most tense state in decades.
Judging by the statements from the White House and the Chinese government, that’s precisely what happened. The two sides discussed sources of disagreement, including Taiwan’s autonomy, the war in Ukraine and China’s human rights record. And they broached areas of potential cooperation, such as climate change, global health and economic stability.
The talks were apparently productive. The Chinese called them “thorough, frank, and constructive.” Biden said, “We were very blunt with one another” but agreed to try to avoid a new Cold War. It wasn’t “Kumbaya,” the President said, but the two sides are perhaps less likely to start an accidental war against each other.
By sheer coincidence, the encounter occurred at a pivotal moment.
Biden pointed out that the results of the midterm elections “sent a very strong message around the world” that the US will remain engaged. But there was a bigger message. The most important signal to the world from the midterms is about the health of America’s democracy. The US elections not only went smoothly and peacefully, but they also dealt a harsh blow to many of the most antidemocratic elements in the country.
A well-functioning democratic process in the US is likely disappointing to Xi and other autocrats hoping that deep divisions not only continue to weaken the country from within but also prove that democracy is chaotic and ineffective, inferior to their autocratic systems, as they like to claim. The midterms brought the American President to the table with a stronger hand to play.
A successful election, and a good performance by his party, gave Biden, and hence the US, a stronger presence at the table.
That’s not the only reason, however, why this was the perfect moment — from the standpoint of the United States and for democracy — for this meeting to occur: There’s much more to this geopolitical moment than who controls the US House of Representatives and Senate.
After years of turmoil and anxiety, there are signs that the democratic world may just be starting to reverse the tide of autocracy, or at least its most dangerous elements. But it’s too early to tell how strong the global democratic push will be.
As Biden and Xi were meeting, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made an emotional, triumphant return to the devastated, now liberated city of Kherson, the one provincial capital that Russian invaders had conquered.
In a major victory for Ukraine that Zelensky called “the beginning of the end of the war,” Russian forces abandoned Kherson to avoid a battlefield rout. The Western-backed Ukrainians continue their successful push against the invasion that Russian President Vladimir Putin launched in February just days after meeting with Xi in Beijing.
Back then, on the opening day of the Winter Olympics, Putin and Xi declared the two countries had a friendship with “no limits,” with no “forbidden areas of cooperation.” Twenty days later, after months of denying any intention to invade Ukraine, Russian troops crossed Ukraine’s borders in what they — and much of the world — expected would be a quick operation to conquer the fledgling democracy next door.
Putin and Xi, the world’s leading autocrats, looked ascendant, unstoppable even. Meanwhile, Western democracies appeared unsettled, roiled by sometimes violent protests against Covid-19 restrictions. Putin was preparing for triumph in Ukraine. Xi was hosting the Olympics, basking in attention, and preparing to solidify his control of China.
Putin’s adventure turned to disaster as the Ukrainians defended their country with unexpected tenacity and as Biden rallied allies in a muscular push to support Ukraine.
By the time Xi and Putin met again in September, China had done little to support Russia militarily, and Putin admitted that Xi had “questions and concerns” about Ukraine. More recently, after the Russian President thinly threatened to use nuclear weapons, Xi rebuked him.
The no-limits friendship of the “autocracy bros” turned a little less warm, the anti-democracy front a little less self-assured.
Tellingly, Putin chose not to attend the G20 summit in Bali, avoiding confrontations with world leaders as he increasingly becomes a pariah on the global stage.
To be sure, Biden is not the only leader with a strong hand. Xi has just secured an unprecedented third term as China’s leader, and he can now effectively rule for as long as he wants. He doesn’t have to worry about elections, about a critical press or a vociferous opposition party. He is essentially the absolute ruler of a mighty country for many years to come.
And yet Xi faces a mountain of daunting problems. The economy has slowed down so much that China is reluctant to reveal economic data. China’s Covid-19 vaccine, once a tool of global diplomacy, is a disappointment. And partly because of that, China is imposing draconian lockdowns as the rest of the world gradually returns to normalcy after the pandemic.
The Biden-Xi summit came at a good time for the West and not a moment too soon. China remains a major violator of human rights, a threat to Taiwan and a key rival of the United States. But avoiding a Cold War or a direct, especially an accidental conflict, is crucial.
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Also crucial in the epochal competition between the two systems is showing that democracy works, defeating efforts of autocratic countries such as China and Russia to discredit it and proving that unprovoked wars of aggression, aimed at suppressing democracy and conquering territory, will not succeed.