A Better Summit

Nov 17, 2023

My October 26 piece for Project Syndicate was titled, “A Better Biden-Xi Summit?” The emphasis was on the question mark.  The Bali summit of a year ago was a flop in many respects—poor preparation, too much emphasis on slogans (putting a “floor” on a conflicted US-China relationship), and vulnerable to unexpected developments (like the surveillance balloon fiasco). Bali was a low bar but there were no guarantees that San Francisco would be any better.

Good news—the San Francisco summit was, indeed, an improvement from the poor effort of a year ago. Most of all, both sides took pre-summit preparation far more seriously. It wasn’t just the high-level diplomatic engagement that resumed last summer with Beijing visits by US cabinet secretaries, Blinken, Yellen, and Raimondo along with climate envoy John Kerry. It was also the effort to identify key issues ahead of time that were most amenable to collaborative troubleshooting, consultation, and ultimately agreement.

My October essay was written, in large part, to offer a framework by which the San Francisco summit can be assessed. I render a tentative verdict based on a careful comparison of the official “readouts” provided by both sides, President Biden’s post-summit press conference, President Xi’s dinner speech to more than 300 business executives in San Francisco, and the in-depth reporting of major media outlets.

Unsurprisingly, at least according to my template, the greatest progress was concentrated in the low-hanging fruit of what I dubbed “achievable deliverables.” Two areas stand out—restarting military-to-military communications and joint efforts to collaborate on the fentanyl crisis. With ongoing worrisome frictions in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, neither side could afford the risk of another communications blackout such as that which occurred when the Chinese surveillance balloon was shot down by the US Air Force in February. The US fentanyl crisis speaks for itself, as one of the leading sources of death for Americans aged 18-45; the Chinese supply chain of precursor chemicals offered a critical source of leverage.

But other less consequential low-hanging fruit was also ripe for the picking in San Francisco. That included a joint commitment to increase direct air flights in 2024, Xi Jinping’s personal invitation to increase US student exchanges by 50,000 over the next five years, and a joint recognition of the need to expand youth, cultural, sports, and business exchanges. One pleasant surprise—a renewal of joint efforts at panda conservation; following the recent departure of three pandas from Washington DC, this obviously struck a sentimental chord  with many animal-loving Americans, including yours truly.

In my latest book, Accidental Conflict, I focused on the low-hanging fruit as important elements of the trust-building agenda that have been sorely missing in an era of Sino-American conflict escalation. There is no simple recipe for converting distrust back into trust, especially after all the animosity of the past five and a half years. At least, there were some important baby steps taken in San Francisco.

I wish I could say the same for the other categories of conflict resolution that I addressed in my October Project Syndicate article. That was especially the case for the existential threats that both nations face. The only notable exception was on climate—the “Sunnylands” agreement reached by both sides on the eve of the San Francisco summit to establish a new working group aimed at the COP28 World Climate Summit in Dubai this coming December.  By contrast, I was disappointed that here was no meaningful breakthrough on AI governance, other than a joint recognition there are mutual safety risks in advanced AI systems.  Nor, unsurprisingly, were there any breakthroughs on cyber security, human rights, or territorial frictions.

Nor was there any movement on the architecture of engagement, where it was all about diplomacy and very little about the institutionalization of deepening engagement. With the summit driven by the diplomats on both sides, this was a hardly a a surprising outcome. But in light of last year’s failed Bali summit, that leaves me unsettled.  While I give the diplomats due credit as the nosecone of reengagement, collaboration, and trust-building, diplomacy offers no guarantees of relationship resilience that can withstand the unexpected development.  Last year, it was the surveillance balloon—who knows what could come next?

The case for institutionalization remains compelling as a complement to diplomatic conflict resolution. Although it didn’t make the cut in San Francisco,  a US-China secretariat remains my favorite option for the two superpowers to get to the Promised Land of conflict resolution.

Yes, compared with the low bar of Bali, San Francisco was indeed, better. But deep questions remain about the overall state of play in the US-China conflict.

You can follow me on X/Twitter @SRoach_econ

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