Checklist for a Successful Biden-Xi Summit

Oct 27, 2023

A three-day visit to Washington by Wang Yi, China’s senior foreign policy leader, pretty much seals the deal. All signs now point to a summit meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the upcoming APEC Meetings to be held next month in San Francisco from November 11th to the 17th.

This will be the second summit between the two presidents, with the upcoming event occurring almost precisely to the day one year after their November 14, 2022, summit in Bali on the eve of the annual G20 leaders’ meeting. Let’s hope the upcoming meeting is more productive than the flop in Bali. A year ago, with the US-China relationship on the skids, all Xi and Biden could accomplish was a rhetorical commitment to “put a floor “on the relationship.

Subsequent events revealed anything but a floor. The great balloon fiasco of early February was followed by a temporary freeze in diplomatic engagement, several rounds of new technology sanctions, military frictions in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea, heightened US congressional pressure on the Taiwan problem, and Xi Jinping’s blatant accusation that China was being severely hobbled by US policies of all around containment. Some floor!

Against this worrisome backdrop of post-Bali conflict escalation, it is urgent to turn the San Francisco summit into a far more productive meeting between the two leaders. My latest article for Project Syndicate lays out three critical objectives that could make or break a successful summit:

  • First, deliverables The low hanging fruit of conflict escalation are easy to pick if the two leaders are so inclined: Reopening closed consulates (for example, the US consulate in Chengdu and the Chinese consulate in Houston), relaxing visa requirements, increasing direct air flights (now 24 per week, compared to more than 150 pre-COVID), and restarting popular student exchanges (such as the Fulbright Program). The most urgent deliverable would be a resumption of regular military-to-military communications, which the Chinese suspended after former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August of 2022.
  • Second, collective ownership of the existential threats. Both the US and China face two common existential threats—climate change and global health. It would be a very positive step if the final statement of the upcoming summit includes joint recognition of the severity of these two problems, along with a menu of remedial actions to resolve them. China and the US need to stand up for joint stewardship of a troubled world, especially with war now raging in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
  • Third, focus on the architecture of engagement. Summits between leaders are necessary, but not sufficient for conflict resolution. A leader-to-leader meeting once every twelve months simply doesn’t cut it for a complex US-China relationship. I continue to favor an approach that also features the institutionalization of engagement framed around a permanent US=China secretariat.

As I concluded in my latest Project Syndicate piece: “The time for collective action is growing short. Any opportunity for Presidents Biden and Xi to agree on realistic deliverables, underscore aspirational goals, and lay the foundations for a new architecture of engagement must not be squandered.” In looking to the upcoming San Francisco summit, that would be my take on a checklist for success.

You can follow me on Twitter @SRoach_econ

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