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Why Xi’s ‘old friend’ Biden probably won’t be attending the Beijing Winter Olympics

November 22, 2021 GMT

US President Joe Biden will not be at the Winter Olympics in Beijing. President Xi Jinping made sure of that.

Numerous think tank panels have picked apart every nuance of Biden’s long-awaited virtual summit with Xi, parsing the language of the readouts. Most came to the general consensus that the two leaders toned down the hostilities in the bilateral relationship without making any concessions or commitments beyond the need for more communication.

Analysis of the minutiae is obligatory for those who hold themselves out as authorities on the world’s most important bilateral relationship. However, the magnifying glasses the pundits used had the effect of downplaying what we should all recognise as a strike that will have lasting effect: Xi’s reference to Biden as an “old friend”.

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He made the remark just hours after White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki insisted that Biden does not regard Xi in such terms, and he was surely made aware of the comment before the two leaders met virtually.

By using the term, Xi set a time bomb that will explode in next year’s election cycle in the form of Republican political attack ads featuring Xi’s comments as the two leaders wave at each other.

The fact that Biden delivered hardline messages in the summit that the GOP couldn’t find any fault with will be irrelevant months from now, if they aren’t already, amid what will certainly be a barrage of Biden-Xi bromance clips.

There is also the PR nightmare of Peng Shuai. It would be beyond naive to imagine that Xi was not aware as he prepared for the summit that the disappearance of the international tennis icon was going to undercut any progress Beijing has made in trying to win friends around the world.

Throw in the viral video last week of a Chinese public health official clubbing a corgi to death and we can see how Xi’s strategists would have been looking for Biden’s main vulnerability: low approval ratings at home.

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Biden’s standing among American voters presents a threat to his success in the international arena. That is where he has brought a wide range of governments ” from Ottawa to New Delhi and Canberra ” on board with his efforts to form a coalition aimed at countering Beijing’s growing military might. He even appears to have largely overcome the fallout with France over the surprise announcement of the Aukus agreement.

With this geostrategic heft behind him, Biden laid down his markers about human rights, a free and open Indo-Pacific, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan, further defying expectations that he would become more of a dove with Beijing than the previous administration.

Facing these dynamics, Beijing would benefit greatly if it could help bring a Republican Party still under the spell of Trumpism ” even if it is no longer animated as much by the former president himself ” back into full power in Washington.

A return to full-on Trumpism would not give Beijing friendlier faces to deal with in Washington, and it would probably even turn up the hostile rhetoric aimed at the Chinese government. However, the new Republican Party would almost certainly revive the “America First” agenda that frayed ties with Canada, Europe and other allies.

If the Chinese government can’t win friends overseas the way Biden has been able to, then it’s better to diminish his already flagging strength at home. It knows the appearance of bonhomie between the two leaders could do just that.

We have already seen the evolution. Shortly after the summit, the Biden administration was at pains to say he was keen to open more lines of communication and deflected when asked about whether he would boycott the Games in February. By the end of the week, however, Biden said a diplomatic boycott was under consideration.

With the threat of Republicans tagging Biden as an “old friend” of Xi, we are not likely to see him or any of his administration cheering on American athletes in Beijing.

Robert Delaney is the Post’s North America bureau chief

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

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