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Foreign Policy

The Significance of the San Francisco Vision

Dec 14, 2023
  • Li Yan

    Deputy Director of Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

On Nov. 15, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with U.S. President Joe Biden at the Filoli Estate in San Francisco, exploring the right way for China and the United States to get along with each other as two great powers, clarifying their shared responsibilities and formulating a future-oriented “San Francisco Vision” that charts the direction for the healthy, stable and sustainable growth of relations.

The San Francisco Vision is informed by a profound understanding of the history of great power relations. President Xi has pointed out that history is the best textbook and reality is the best sobering reminder. China-U.S. relations have global implications, and it is of fundamental importance to clarify the basic nature of the relationship. Are the two countries partners or rivals? Is it mutually beneficial and cooperative or is it confrontational?

Over the past few years, the United States has sought to define relations with China in terms of the Thucydides Trap and has approached their relations from the perspective of strategic competition, which comes with heightened risks of miscalculation. China, on the other hand, has always viewed bilateral ties from a higher perspective, seeking to build a community with a shared future for mankind. It has adhered to the principles of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation and has drawn lessons from major power conflicts and confrontations over the past five decades to ensure that bilateral ties stay on the right track.

The San Francisco summit between the two heads of state took place amid a fluid international situation, which means the world, more than ever, needs a stable China-U.S. relationship. The San Francisco Vision put forward by China reflects the country’s consistent approach to relations — from a historical perspective and in light of an evolving world. It is not only in line with the spirit of the three principles of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation, but is also a strategic move that bridges the history and future of bilateral relations.

The San Francisco Vision establishes the basic structure for the stable development of China-U.S. relations under today’s new circumstances. While the two countries differ vastly in terms of culture and social systems, they are closely intertwined in their interests and people-to-people exchanges. Against the backdrop of a global transformation unseen in a century, their differences and similarities are brought out in stark contrast. In the past, the perception of common strategic threats or common interests that contributed to the stable development of China-U.S. relations has either disappeared or gradually become irrelevant.

Under such circumstances, it is a major challenge for the two great powers to manage relations in the right way and remain rational when engaging with each other. President Xi has observed from a strategic height that China and the United States should work together to establish a correct perception, effectively manage differences, promote mutually beneficial cooperation, jointly shoulder their responsibilities as major countries and boost people-to-people exchanges.

The above form the five pillars of cooperation that underpin the stable development of China-U.S. relations and are the basic underlying structure. China and the United States must first establish a correct understanding of the nature and positioning of their relationship, which is fundamental to managing differences and deterring escalation. It enables mutually beneficial cooperation and create the conditions needed for them to assume their responsibilities as major countries.

President Xi has pointed out on several occasions that the hope of China-U.S. relations lies in their people — the foundation of society, and especially the youth, who are the future. Its vitality comes from subnational exchanges. This is precisely the strategic significance behind promoting people-to-people exchanges, reflecting the great role of the people in China-U.S. engagement.

Based on the above analysis, as long as China and the United States uphold the spirit of these five pillars of engagement, a stable and mutually beneficial relationship will be achievable and the San Francisco Vision will hold brighter promise. Delivering that vision hinges on positive interaction between China and the United States in a wide range of areas.

The recent summit was productive. The two sides explored dialogue and cooperation in various fields on the basis of mutual respect and equality, and they reached more than 20 understandings on foreign policy, people-to-people exchanges, global governance, military security and other areas. These understandings will become the main policy areas for China and the United States to jointly implement the vision.

In the bilateral arena, the two countries not only restored or established a series of policy consultation mechanisms but also agreed to resume high-level military-to-military communication and renew the China-United States Science and Technology Agreement. They also agreed to work toward a significant increase in scheduled passenger flights and to expand student exchanges.

In the multilateral arena, China and the United States highlighted two global governance hotspots — climate change and artificial intelligence — and they will continue to play a leading role through the establishment of new consultation mechanisms. The global significance of China-U.S. interactions will be reflected in dealing with issues of global scale. The above understandings and the upcoming multilevel collaborations capture the essence of recent China-U.S. interaction, which will help stabilize relations and imbue the San Francisco Vision with real-world relevance.

From Bali to San Francisco, China and the United States have been working together in the right direction to grow bilateral ties, and the right way to get along with each other. Despite the recent summit success, however, China-U.S. relations still face many challenges. Next year is the 45th anniversary of China-U.S. diplomatic ties, and the two countries should uphold the three principles of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation, and they should adhere to the spirit of the five pillars of cooperation to jointly bring the San Francisco Vision to reality. In short, they should bolster the foundation of peaceful coexistence and inject certainty and stability into a turbulent and ever-changing world.

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