Pondering Sullivan: Part I

Feb 1, 2024

On January 30, Jake Sullivan, US National Security Advisor, spoke on the future of US-China relations before a joint meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations and the China Forum-UCSD (University of California at San Diego). His speech was short but wide-ranging. He had just returned from a two-day meeting in Thailand with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, and was dealing with a full plate of other geopolitical issues, including the Iranian-backed drone attack of a US military outpost in Jordan that killed three Army reservists as well as ongoing Israeli-Hamas negotiations.

But Sullivan stayed on point and provided a comprehensive assessment of the Biden Administration’s China policy. There was one rather cryptic line in his speech that I found especially interesting. In looking to the Administration’s future strategy for US-China engagement, Sullivan said, “We’re not planning to recreate the now outdated structures and mechanisms from an earlier period in the bilateral relationship.”

Maybe I’m reading too much into these words, but they were music to my ears. My take is that Jake Sullivan was indicating that the Administration had no interest in going back an old framework of US-China engagement that featured bi-annual Strategic Economic Dialogues in the Bush II Administration and annual Strategic & Economic Dialogues in the Obama Administration. (Note the subtle difference in nomenclature—the insertion of an ampersand in the Obama era broadened the scope of the grand summit to include foreign affairs in addition to economics and trade. In the Bush II era, the focus was just on economics and trade, driven largely by Treasury on the US side, headed up by Hank Paulson).

Ampersand or not, these meetings over the 2006-17 period accomplished very little. As I wrote in Accidental Conflict, they were long on ceremony but short on substance—in effect, thinly disguised “event-planning exercises” that failed to prevent a buildup of tensions between the two superpowers that culminated in a trade war beginning in 2017. As I argued in the final chapter of the book, there is a clear and increasingly urgent need for new architecture of engagement.

Sullivan’s message came to the same conclusion. But I have to confess to being a little disappointed in his suggestions as to what might come next. Sullivan’s preference stressed the merits of diplomatic engagement rather than the institutional connectivity I emphasized in the secretariat proposal of Accidental Conflict. Sullivan was understandably pleased at the results of recent diplomatic efforts that began last summer, which culminated in the Woodside, California leader-to-leader summit last November. He drew added encouragement from the establishment of several bilateral working groups, with possibly more to come (maybe AI?), adding that he “…hopes can work with the PRC to deepen crisis communication mechanisms to reduce the risk of conflict.”

My point is that diplomacy should be viewed as necessary, but not sufficient, for Sino-American conflict resolution. While diplomacy can serve the very useful purpose of sparking re-engagement, there are two reasons why it falls short of providing a permanent template for a working relationship. First, diplomatic success often hinges on the fragile egos of political leaders; look no further than the XI-Biden Bali summit of November 2022, where the personal commitment of both presidents to “put a floor” on conflict was quickly derailed by a surveillance balloon. Second, working groups covene at discrete intervals—once a quarter, at best; they lack the continuum of full-time engagement that a secretariat would offer.

My approach to a new architecture of engagement argues that  the personalization of diplomacy must be accompanied and reinforced by the institutionalization of a secretariat. While I give Sullivan credit for recognizing the futility of the old structure of engagement, I think he needs to sharpen his focus on what come next.

The Q&A session following Jake Sullivan’s speech was also very interesting. More on that next week.

You can follow me on X/Twitter @SRoach_econ

Sign up for Stephen’s Dispatches: