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Foreign Policy

San Francisco Signified a key Watershed in Chinese Diplomacy

Dec 21, 2023
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

It has been over a month since what many have dubbed a critical meeting between Presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden, as it marked what is possibly the last in-person conversation between the two leaders before the United States heads into the election year in 2024, but also the first face-to-face meeting conducted since the Balloon-gate early this year threw a serious spanner into Sino-American relations. 

With Donald J Trump leading Biden in several polls in key swing states, Biden is pulling out all the stops he can in preventing his presumed opponent’s return.  The San Francisco meet was instrumental in enabling him to demonstrate competence and capacity in managing America’s differences with a powerful economic and geo-strategic rival, in contrast to Trump’s flagrant violations of ‘traditional’ American principles. 

The Biden and Xi meeting was certainly desirable. The four hours spent – comprising a conversation attended by other officials and members of the delegation, and a more intimate, private discussion held between the two – enabled both sides to forge a tentative agreement on how to disagree responsibly. 

Whilst no substantial breakthroughs were achieved over Taiwan, South China Sea, technological rivalry and containment measures, both came to the settled conclusion that whatever their differences, China and the U.S. could ill afford to be embroiled in a kinetic war – directly or indirectly, via proxies. The One China policy would remain intact: the White House would tone down its (perceived) provocations over Taiwan, in exchange for Beijing’s committing to non-deployment of force over the Straits and South China Sea. All else was up for debate and grabs, though both leaders committed to strengthening people-to-people ties. 

The true significance of Xi’s visit, however, rested with his effervescent and highly conciliatory remarks delivered to the select assembly of the ‘Who’s Who’ of American businesses, at the banquet hosted by organisations including the U.S.-China Business Council and the National Committee on U.S.-China relations. His 34-minute speech was remarkable in affirming the centrality of the Sino-American partnership, anchored in the “historical trend of peaceful coexistence,” to the continued progress and development of global politics. 

Indeed, the palpable shift in tone and rhetoric concerning America – relative to earlier warnings issued in March concerning the “containment, encirclement, and suppression” by Western countries, or official rhetoric adopted by Beijing diplomats since early 2020 – took many by surprise. Observers in the private sector were taken aback by the warmth and reassured by the sincerity exhibited by Xi in his message to the American people: the clearest, unmistakable signal that Beijing is seeking a reset to how the West, especially its private sector, perceives China. 

Whilst there has been no fundamental alteration in how Beijing frames its relationship with the United States – China had always eschewed labels of ‘rivals’ and ‘strategic competition’ in describing the dyad -- it is evident that much of the grievance-fuelled negativity and scepticism with which America had previously been portrayed in state-sanctioned rhetoric and online discourses, have taken a relative backseat in Xi’s speech. In their place came a doubling-down on the benefits and virtues of trust-fostering, relationship-building, and reciprocal collaboration between the two global powers. 

Some would attribute this pivot to the olive branch extended by Washington – in the form of the four cabinet-level officials’ visits to China during the summer. Others would posit that it has much to do with Chinese leadership’s campaign to advance its post-pandemic economic recovery, which has faced significant impediments throughout 2023. Still, one could read the speech as a rare, relatively unfiltered opportunity for the Chinese leader to convey his genuine resolve to stabilising bilateral relations and fostering collaboration – ahead of a rather volatile and monumental year in American politics. 

There are three core takeaways from Xi’s speech of which observers should take note. 

The first is the substantial emphasis upon people-to-people, track-II/1.5 dialogues between academics, businesspersons, cultural organisations, and citizens (what I term the ‘ABCC’ model of non-governmental diplomacy). The term ‘people’/‘peoples’ appeared 63 times in the speech, which cited examples of successful, civilian-led exchange efforts that had precipitated an easing of tensions and strengthening of governmental contact and liaison. Xi referenced the Flying Tigers, Ping Pong diplomacy, and even his own personal stay at 2911 Bonnie Drive in Iowa – many residents in the neighbourhood of which were invited to the banquet – to highlight the crucial value of people “speak[ing] up and open[ing their] hearts to each other” in favour of the bilateral friendship. 

Given the increasing securitisation and politicisation of academic and cultural exchanges over the past couple of years, bolstering people-to-people ties is both easier said than done, yet also more important than ever. In pledging that China was ready to invite 50,000 American students to China, Xi’s words were instrumental in eliminating any residual doubts amongst more junior and mid-ranking bureaucrats, concerning the value of unfettered, comprehensive education-based contact between the youths of the two countries. His words also indirectly signalled that the country was keen to support Sino-American joint education initiatives – such as the Schwarzman College and the NYU Shanghai – that aim to bridge the gulf between members of the future generations, on China, the U.S., and the world at large. 

The second is that Xi had sought to position himself as open, receptive, and appreciative of America's people, history, and culture. Whilst recent years have seen select jingoistic and ultra-nationalistic voices in China turn increasingly to simplistic admonition of America over its colonial past and alleged militaristic adventurism, Xi clearly indicated that he did not feel the same way about the bulk of the American people, who, like the Chinese, are “kind, friendly, hardworking, and down-to-earth.”

Indeed, the statesman explicitly named Microsoft Founder Bill Gates’ visit to China as demonstrative of “people from all walks of life” visiting China. Whilst the direct mentioning of Sino-American trade and commercial interdependence was brief and early on in the speech, there was a persistent motif of “peace” that undergirded the speech at large. It was clear that Xi had taken into consideration foreign investors’ growing anxieties over China becoming embroiled in military conflict and economic upheaval – and sought to reassure them that Beijing’s default preference remains one of peace. 

The third and most crucial takeaway is China’s vision for the bilateral relationship.

In a recent Foreign Policy article, Zack Cooper asks, “Does America have an endgame on China?” Whilst the bombast and noise on Capitol Hill and friction between bureaucracies and departments has made answering coherently this question nigh-impossible for even the most seasoned China policymakers in America, it is evident that Beijing is aiming to develop a reciprocal vision for its relations with Washington. 

Xi expressly told Biden in their meeting that “planet Earth is big enough for both the U.S. and China to succeed.” In his speech at the dinner, Xi asked, “are we adversaries, or partners?” He proceeded to outline a three-point framework – mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and win-win cooperation – as China’s overarching proposal for bilateral relations. None of these key tenets is predicated upon the assumption that the two powers must compete and conflict with, or confront one another as rivals or foes. Amongst them, peaceful coexistence took central stage. Whilst there is no real shift here (given that this position had long been espoused by the Chinese leadership), for perhaps the first time in public, Xi coherently stated that, “we will be glad to see a confident, open, ever-growing and prosperous United States. Likewise, the United States should not bet against China, or interfere in China's internal affairs.” 

If these words can be taken up seriously by foreign policymakers and diplomats on both sides of the Pacific, the world we live in would be much stabler, safer, and genuinely peaceful.  

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