The world breathed a collective sigh of relief at the front-page photos of Joe Biden and Xi Jinping smiling while shaking hands in Bali on November 14. The steady drumbeat of US-China conflict escalation over the past five years had taken a decided turn for the worse in recent months. The Pelosi visit to Taiwan, congressional passage of the CHIPS Act, and the Biden Administration’s export sanctions on Chinese purchases of advanced semiconductors left little doubt of America’s hardened attitude toward China. In the aftermath of the 20th Party Congress, Xi Jinping came to Bali with a seemingly unrivaled permeance to his power base. It was a recipe for collision.
Yet, when all was said and done, the words were far softer than recent actions. President Biden insisted “there need not be a new Cold War.” Xi Jinping alluded to the same by stressing that “US-China relations should not be a zero-sum game.” Read-outs from both sides of the three-hour meeting between presidents stressed the usual platitudes of frank, direct, and candid discussions between old friends. Collision averted.
The Bali disconnect is hardly unique in the kabuki of diplomacy. That is especially the case when issues and risks become tied to the personalities of individual leaders and, by inference, to the politics of their projections of power. The point I make in my new book is that resolution of serious conflict ultimately requires a depersonalization of policies and actions on both sides. That, of course, was impossible with Donald Trump, still difficult with Joe Biden, and now exceedingly difficult in a Xi-centric China.
This is where my proposal for a US-China Secretariat could play a critical role. The secretariat, in effect, would be a collaborative staffing function that depersonalizes bilateral engagement. Empowered with a collaborative program of research, data gathering, jointly authored policy white papers, and action optionality, the secretariat would have done a far better job in setting the agenda in Bali than was done by the compartmentalized efforts of two competing teams. The secretariat offers a full-time architecture of engagement that is far more robust than periodic efforts devoted to specific summits, such as Bali, or as was the case in earlier Strategic & Economic Dialogues.
In just five years, the United States and China have gone from a trade war, to a tech war, and now to the early stages of a new cold war — notwithstanding Biden’s most recent claim to the contrary. The high-octane fuel of conflict escalation is all too easily combustible. With plenty of sparks in the air — Taiwan, China’s unlimited partnership with Russia, Xinjiang, the next House speaker’s likely quick visit to Taipei, etc. —the guardrails of a more robust architecture of engagement are all the more essential. Depersonalizing the conflict offers a far more promising road to conflict de-escalation. As the photo-ops and rhetoric underscored, Bali was a classic example of the personalization of bilateral posturing. Lacking in any concrete actions, it accomplished little on the road to conflict resolution.
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