The Pre-Summit Scramble

Nov 9, 2023

Predictably, both the United States and China are engaged in a flurry of diplomatic activity ahead of next week’s summit between US President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping. As of this writing, the actual date and venue have yet to be formally announced by either government. The whispers point to next Wednesday, November 15 on the sidelines of the upcoming APEC leaders meeting in San Francisco.

With the clock ticking, senior officials on both sides have sprung into action. Wang Yi, China’s senior foreign policy official, was first in the cue with his October 26-28 visit to Washington, D.C. US Treasury Secretary Janey Yellen is meeting with her Chinese counterpart, Vice Premier He Lifeng, in San Francisco today and tomorrow.  And US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has just signaled his desire to restart US-China military-to-military communications that have been suspended since former Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022.

Both sides are making major efforts to spin these developments, in conjunction with earlier diplomatic efforts this summer, in an extremely positive light. I am currently in Hong Kong at a major conference on US-China relations, where enthusiastic talk of a “new thaw” is in the air. Yes, these recent diplomatic efforts are good news, hopefully a prelude to even better news to come when the two presidents meet in person next week. That would be a welcome development following the disappointing results of their previous summit a year ago on the eve of the G20 meeting in Bali, Indonesia. Back then, contrary to the shared Bali messaging of both leaders to put a “floor” on a sharply deteriorating US-China relationship, things quickly went from bad to worse following the downing of a Chinese surveillance balloon in early February 2023.

The tough experience of a year ago is a warning of relying too much on leader-to-leader summits as the principal means to manage a complex bilateral relationship. The Bali focus was more on rhetoric than substance, quickly becoming more of a media event with undue attention on leader personalities, fragile egos, and thorny domestic politics. Largely for that reason, the Bali summit failed to address the fundamental issues that  divide the two superpowers. That requires the personalization of summitry to be augmented by the institutionalization of conflict resolution.

I have long favored a permanent institution—a US-China secretariat—as the most effective means to address the thorny issues of conflict on a continuous basis. For two superpowers now in serious conflict on so many key points—especially trade, technology, and military/ domestic security—far more is needed than leader-to leader meetings every twelve months. A secretariat, by contrast, would depersonalize and depoliticize re-engagement, with greater emphasis on the process and the analytics of ongoing collaborative problem solving. It relies less on rhetorical bluster and more on technocrats to troubleshoot and develop mutually agreeable remedies to tough problems.

It is not an either/ or proposition. Successful summits between national leaders can be effective at setting a bilateral agenda and prioritizing subsequent actions. That is my biggest hope for next week’s Biden-Xi summit. There is a long list of potential deliverables that can be used as a checklist to assess the success or failure of the upcoming Biden-Xi summit—including but not limited to restarting military-to-military communications, reopening closed consulates, loosening travel restrictions, restarting educational exchanges, jointly addressing the fentanyl crisis, and relaxing constraints on NGOs.

All of these items, with the possible exception of NGO conflict resolution, are relatively low hanging fruit that the two leaders can reach agreement on relatively easy.  But that requires trust—ultimately an act of political courage. As both sides now scramble to prepare for the upcoming San Francisco summit, it is important to recognize that the outcome could well hinge on the political courage of Joe Biden and Xi Jinping.

You can follow me on X/Twitter @SRoach_econ

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