Finally. After nearly two years of Covid-induced zoom meetings and phone conversations, the fog is about to lift in Bali, with a face-to-face meeting the coming Monday (November 14) between Presidents Biden and Xi on the sidelines of the upcoming G-20 meeting.
While any meeting at this point between these two leaders is welcome, don’t get too excited about the possibilities of a major breakthrough in an ever-escalating US-China conflict. First of all, the meeting has to happen. Can you imagine the furor if the presidents of the world’s two superpowers, both of whom had good working relationships with the other when they were vice presidents of their respective nations, gave each other the cold shoulder in Bali? No way.
Both sides have done their best to lower expectations. The White House has cryptically described the intent to “responsibly manage competition, and work together where our interests align,” and has hinted that Taiwan and Russia will be discussed — hardly shocking in light of recent developments. There is some indication that both sides want to go on record with their respective “red lines” on these contentious issues, recognizing the pitfalls of ambiguity. That, of course, would be a departure from the “strategic ambiguity” that has long characterized the Taiwan implications of America’s One China policy, that President Biden has repeatedly drawn into question. And there is no intention to issue a joint statement, or communiqué, following what is likely to be a relatively brief discussion.
This type of encounter, little more than a well-staged public relations event, is indicative of the flawed architecture of engagement between the United States and China. Before the world tilted with the election of Donald J. Trump to the US presidency in 2016, there used to be regular grand summits known as Strategic & Economic Dialogues; they were held twice a year in the Bush II Administration and once a year under Obama (who creatively inserted and ampersand into the nomenclature of the gathering). They were long on oratory and pomp but accomplished next to nothing in terms of substantiative breakthroughs. Trump tried one such effort but then quickly abandoned this approach in favor of glitzy dinners in Beijing and Mar-a-Lago.
The world’s most important relationship needs a far more robust structure of engagement. Periodic summits — when they occurred — or phone/ zoom calls, or even a quick leader-to-leader in-person chat, simply don’t cut it. The relationship is far too complex, plagued by misconceptions (i.e., false narratives), and too unstable to leave to ceremonial, serendipitous encounters.
That is one of the key prescriptive conclusions of my new book, Accidental Conflict, in which I present a detailed proposal for a US-China Secretariat — a new organization (located in a neutral venue) that is staffed by equal complements of senior Chinese and US professionals working full-time 24/7 on all aspects of the US-China relationship, from trade and economics to technology and cyber to human rights and health. The focus would be on the development of joint policy proposals (and joint troubleshooting when needed), based on a shared database (avoiding “alternative facts’), and accompanied by a robust dispute resolution mechanism.
The photo ops at Bali will play well on global media platforms. But they don’t do justice to the tough issues that are driving the world’s most powerful nations apart. The US and China can and must do better. A new secretariat is worth serious consideration.
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