On November 14, Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping undertook a historic meeting – it was the first in-person dialogue held between the two presidents in their capacities as the no. 1 of their respective countries, and the first in over five years since Biden and Xi last spoke in person.
There have been extensive analyses of the meeting – its foreground, lead-up, and undergirding implications for bilateral relations. Independent of stance on the Sino-American relationship, most had concurred that the meeting had provided a much-needed floor to the “vigorous competition” through maintaining “open lines of communication.”
Whilst the Americans had repeatedly framed the summit and its consequent pledges as vital to restoring the guardrails between Beijing and Washington, China saw it as a more fundamental recalibration and restatement of its worldview – a multipolar world order where China and America nevertheless remain the primary players and pillars for global security. The question, of course, is how?
How could this multipolar yet concurrently bi-leader worldview be realized – given the substantial mistrust and vitriol in Washington towards China, and the precipitous triumphalism exhibited by some in China towards their international counterparts.
Over issues including Taiwan, the South China Seas, China’s chips production and industrial policy, the United States’ tariffs and economic strategy vis-à-vis China, it is clear that there exists much divergence between the two parties. Some of these fault-lines were aired and took central stage at the conversation in Bali – e.g. Taiwan; others were contextually deprioritised, though remain high up on the list of public-facing agendas, especially in the rhetoric adopted by some aligned with an increasingly hawkish consensus on China in America.
All of this is to say, the Bali meeting signalled a preliminary willingness to explore how relations could be improved – but it alone, or, indeed, the series of meetings in the run-up, including Blinken and Wang, Burns, and Qin, frankly cannot suffice. These meetings alone have helpfully put a halt to the rapidly deteriorating relations, cleared some degree of debris and misunderstandings, and enabled the two powers to arrive at the agreement that Ukraine should be kept nuke-free (as I have repeatedly advocated in prior writings). Yet if relations were to genuinely improve and shift in direction of the pre-2016 default (the prospects of which I remain broadly pessimistic over), the following changes must happen:
First, guard-railing is key: there needs to be an active, concerted, and coordinated effort on both parties to restore robust ‘limits’ to bilateral interactions, cutting across spheres of the military, the economic, the industrial, and the technological. Much of this may come across as over-ambitious – yet the spectre of overreach could be avoided provided that both Beijing and Washington are realistic and selective about what they want to guard against, and maximalist upon identifying the fundamental threats against which they must push back. An all-out hot or nuclear war that precipitates irreversible escalation in force deployed appears to top the list here – and we have already seen what proxy conflicts between two nuclear powers in the 21st century could well culminate at, in the expansive devastation wrought upon Ukraine.
To move guard-railing beyond mere talk, however, what is fundamentally required is the installation of regular, open communicative channels across all departments and the senior, decision-making levels of both governments. Heads of bureaux and departments should be able to identify and develop working relationships with their counterparts across the Pacific – if nothing else, this would prove to be essential should tensions arise and clarification be vital in preventing spill-over and undue overreaction. Resuming talks between the military and defence ministries would be a welcome and vital first step to managing the potential fallout from skirmishes and near-misses in disputed waters, for instance.
Second, China and America alike must proactively explore the prospects for meaningful collaboration that is beyond lip-service. The assertion that “Beijing and Washington must cooperate to tackle pressing challenges,” is a well-trotted adage and epithet – if it is rare to hear its being spoken, this is not due to its being a complex concept to grasp, but given the increasingly truculent atmosphere, politicians on both sides are finding it harder to pitch for the pro-engagement stance. Yet the devil lies in the details – where should, and can the two parties meaningfully benefit off each other through cooperation? The first, and perhaps most obvious candidate, constitutes climate change – streamlining solar panel supply chains, pooling decarbonisation and afforestation technologies and efforts, and coordinating to reduce emissions and facilitate green transitions that does not come at a grave cost to both parties, would be a sensible start to the efforts. The second, is on strengthening peacekeeping missions in regions ranging from the Horn of Africa to Haiti, and on finding common ground on conflicts such as the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine – recent statements by Beijing have been most encouraging. The third, and final question, concerns establishing neutral, depoliticised spaces once again for medical and public health research – it would be naïve to think that across most sensitive industries, trust could be resumed, but the least that could happen is for scientists and doctors to once again be empowered to focus on the science, as opposed to shielding themselves from the politics.
Both of the above will take time; they are equally demanding in terms of political capital and resolve. Hence the question arises – what could be done in the interim, to ensure a few ‘quick wins’ in succession to the Bali meeting? Here are a few suggestions. The lift of travel and visa restrictions on journalists and academics from both sides, the resumption of academic and educational exchanges between universities, and the hosting of genuinely meaningful and unfiltered track-II dialogue discussions across the Pacific would be welcome. A more proactive affirmation that the McCarthyist rhetoric employed to witch-hunt and harass ethnic Chinese-Americans should be followed up with action; on the other hand, it behooves all parties to reflect upon the limits and dangers of excess nationalism – leaning too heavily into claims of national pride and solidarity not only undermine international trust and credibility, but also do injustice to those who have dedicated their careers to bridging the divide between the two countries. It remains to be seen if Biden and Xi’s meeting would be followed by a period of détente and rapprochement between the two countries. Optimists may find this view worthy of holding – but I, for one, remain sceptical. With that said, more can and should be done – till the tides turn, once again.