With the US-China Meeting, History Repeats Itself, Sort Of

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U.S. President Joe Biden will meet this week with Chinese President Xi Jinping. It’s an important meeting in that both presidents are weak and thus seek to improve their standing at home and their respective countries’ positions in the world.

One can’t help but be reminded of a similar trip in 1972, when U.S. President Richard Nixon famously met Chinese leader Mao Zedong. By then, Mao’s age and health had reduced him to a shadow of his former self, while Nixon was dealing with the Watergate scandal, which, I’m sure, he knew would eventually destroy him.

The international context is similar too. In October 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel from two directions. Israel, unprepared for the attack, was questioning how its intelligence could fail so miserably. Its opponents took to the streets to condemn its actions, while the Israel Defense Forces conducted the war indifferent to the court of public opinion. The Soviet Union played a key role in arming Egypt and Syria, particularly with surface-to-air missiles and anti-tank systems, while the U.S., already an Israeli military benefactor, rushed more arms to Israel after the onset of the attack. Arab countries placed an embargo on oil, which went a long way to sending the U.S. economy reeling.

That these events all took place in a short space of time made it seem as though the world was coming apart.

The U.S., of course, was the driver of most of these events. It was still fighting the Cold War, so it was still obsessed with the Soviet Union and the threat it posed to Europe. It knew that Moscow had become involved in a major border dispute with China, and it was, as always, looking for a way to weaken it. China had blocked Soviet forces but was aware that they might strike again. It needed a counterweight. The meeting with Nixon was about an informal and undocumented alliance between the United States and China against the Soviet Union. Neither liked each other, but practicality makes strange bedfellows. Ultimately, the meeting would open the door to Chinese exports to the U.S. and U.S. investments in China.

The circumstances surrounding the upcoming meeting between Biden and Xi, which will take place in San Francisco, are thus: China’s economy is weak, and its weakness has created social tensions that Xi now has to manage. The U.S. wants China to curb some of its naval activity, of course, but I suspect they also have a common interest in curbing Russia. On paper, China is allied with Russia but has done little materially to back it up. Beijing’s historic distrust of Moscow isn’t so easily forgotten. The meeting will likely not mention Russia, save for a wink and nod.

At the periphery of all of this is the Arab-Israeli war, which the U.S. wishes would go away but which clings to history as an unwanted responsibility. It’s the same war as in 1973 with different players and weapons, with no solution and the sounds of the highly moral demanding that someone else do something.

This article is not meant to be profound. It is meant to give us a sense of the necessity built into our lives. In geopolitics, context always matters. The past is the present and likely the future, if not in detail then in spirit.

George Friedman

George Friedman is an internationally recognized geopolitical forecaster and strategist on international affairs and the founder and chairman of Geopolitical Futures.

Dr. Friedman is also a New York Times bestselling author. His most recent book, THE STORM BEFORE THE CALM: America’s Discord, the Coming Crisis of the 2020s, and the Triumph Beyond, published February 25, 2020 describes how “the United States periodically reaches a point of crisis in which it appears to be at war with itself, yet after an extended period it reinvents itself, in a form both faithful to its founding and radically different from what it had been.” The decade 2020-2030 is such a period which will bring dramatic upheaval and reshaping of American government, foreign policy, economics, and culture.

His most popular book, The Next 100 Years, is kept alive by the prescience of its predictions. Other best-selling books include Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe, The Next Decade, America’s Secret War, The Future of War and The Intelligence Edge. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages.

Dr. Friedman has briefed numerous military and government organizations in the United States and overseas and appears regularly as an expert on international affairs, foreign policy and intelligence in major media. For almost 20 years before resigning in May 2015, Dr. Friedman was CEO and then chairman of Stratfor, a company he founded in 1996. Friedman received his bachelor’s degree from the City College of the City University of New York and holds a doctorate in government from Cornell University.