As widely predicted, a virtual meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) on Monday last week did not produce many concrete results. It only showed that the US and China are trying to ensure there is a smooth channel of communication between their top leaders that would allow the two countries to manage their complex relationship while also competing with one another.
Another focus was Xi’s opening remarks, in which he said: “I am very happy to see my old friend,” but did not get a positive response from Biden.
Media reports quoted White House press secretary Jen Psaki as saying that Biden does not consider Xi an old friend, and many commentators have made a big deal about his lack of appreciation for Xi’s friendly gesture, calling it a slap in the face.
However, this interpretation is debatable.
Terms used in diplomatic situations have special meanings, so experienced diplomats and politicians need to use words very precisely to avoid sending the wrong message. China is especially fastidious about ways of addressing somebody, as well as terms used in public, so it is unlikely that Xi would “depart from the script” at such an important event, and whatever he said can be taken as representing how China views its relations with the US.
Historically, China has referred to other countries and individuals as “good friends,” “old friends,” “good brothers” and “good partners,” and if these are followed by “of the Chinese people,” it means the relationship is even closer.
“Old friend” is perhaps the lowest-ranking of those titles.
For example, in 2015, China’s relations with Singapore were not good. When former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew (李光耀) died in March of that year, then-Chinese vice president Li Yuanchao (李源潮), who was not a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, was sent to Singapore to attend Lee’s funeral.
Li conveyed Xi’s condolence message, which called Lee an “old friend of the Chinese people,” indicating the state of relations between China and Singapore.
In 2018, China hosted a Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, which is an important occasion for Beijing to get African countries on its side.
In his opening speech, Xi said: “For China, we are always Africa’s good friend, good partner and good brother.”
On Oct. 13, Xi held a video conference with outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, during which he called her “an old friend of the Chinese people,” making her one of the few leaders in the past few years to be addressed that way.
Only those whom China considers to have made special contributions to bilateral relations can receive such an “honor.”
Xi calling Biden an “old friend” is merely a polite form of addressing someone China has known for a long time, so it would be an overstatement to suggest that Xi received a slap in the face from Biden in return for his goodwill gesture.
Nonetheless, there should be no doubt that the US has a firm attitude toward China. As for Xi, there was no sign of him softening his tone or humbling himself, at least not from the way he addressed Biden.
Taiwan should be more concerned about whether anything that the US and China do regarding important issues such as cross-strait and US-China relations would have any effect on the nation’s major interests, and should formulate any necessary countermeasures in good time.
Kung Hsien-tai is director of the ethics department of Taiwan Financial Holdings.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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