The world had been holding breath for the historical San Francisco summit between President Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden that would pull back China-U.S. relations from running further downhill and thus anchor the world. Given serious headwinds and back-to-back crises facing the world — the once-in-a-century pandemic, sluggish global economic recovery, and geopolitical flare-ups, hopes are high that the long-anticipated summit can help achieve a China-U.S. detente and inject positive energy into global development.
Sitting across from each other at a long table at the Filoli Estate on the outskirts of San Francisco, the two presidents had a four-hour candid and in-depth discussion on issues critical to bilateral relations and regional and global issues of fundamental significance. They agreed to restore regular communication, both high-level and military-wise, and made progress on a number of key issues, including fentanyl and AI rule-making. It seems that the positive message reflected in both sides’ readouts as well as private interactions between the two heads of state on the sidelines of APEC provide a confidence booster for the world to expect a thaw in relations between the two superpowers.
San Francisco Counts but Not Suffices
Highlighted agreements reached through the meeting, including restoration of mil-to-mil contacts, jointly curbing fentanyl and precursor chemicals, and establishing a dialogue on artificial intelligence, will for sure inject more certainty into the very rocky period of China-U.S. relations. Regular and sound interactions between the two presidents who are at the helm of this most consequential relationship will increase understanding and dispel mistrust. Keeping military hot-lines open is also important to prevent miscalculations and defuse possible flare-ups.
Simmering differences still remain, both ideologically and pragmatically. Though relevant wording in press releases has been reduced from “competition” to “competitive aspects,” the rivalry relationship is still portrayed as predestined and unavoidable by the United States. Prior to Secretary Antony Blinken’s June visit to Beijing, the U.S. hegemonic attempt to remodel China was once again laid bare by the remarks by a U.S. official that “we know efforts to shape or reform China over several decades have failed.” Based on this “democracy vs. authoritarianism” mindset, some in the United States have been using ideological differences as a tool to repress anyone who disagrees with them and to contain the development of other countries.
In the same vein, if one still believes that China and the United States have competing interests on trade and technology, it will be highly impossible to find a harmonious way of seeking win-win cooperation. More than 7,000 Chinese companies have business footprint in the United States. Among them, members of the China General Chamber of Commerce alone have invested a total of over 137 billion U.S. dollars in the country, creating over 230,000 jobs. If such an interdependent trade tie is severed, both sides and even the wider world will stand to lose enormously.
Analysts have kept warning time and again that having the world’s two biggest economies at loggerheads will not help alleviate thorny issues faced by all and will only exacerbate global crises. However, the number one question is: Are China and the United States adversaries or partners?
President Xi in San Francisco gave his answer: If one sees the other side as a primary competitor, the most consequential geopolitical challenge and a pacing threat, it will only lead to misinformed policy making, misguided actions, and unwanted results.
To put it more explicitly, if the United States continues to see China as an enduring rival that it must out-compete in order to maintain its global hegemony, it will be very dangerous for both sides and the world as a whole. Lessons from history must be learned because such Cold War thinking plunged two countries who accounted for only 1 percent of international relationships into 80 percent of wars. The China-U.S. rift must not become another example of the “Thucydides trap”.
China is ready to be a partner and friend of the United States. The Chinese side put forward “five pillars” that must be put in place for this most consequential relationship to remain stable and deliver benefits to the two peoples and beyond. Developing a right perception of each other and managing disagreements effectively are the two main pillars. To move the dial between China and the United States, it takes a “partnership-above-competition” approach to base cooperation on mutual understanding and win-win results.
That said, agreeing to disagree is certainly not enough. More political commitment and real actions are needed from the United States to avoid backpedaling or even crossing the red line on the most sensitive issues, such as the Taiwan question. Despite promises made by the United States about managing the relationship responsibly and not veering it into conflict, more sources of tension are being created, such as unfounded accusations, additional sanctions and fabricated assertions.
Though the world has been expecting a rosy picture of China and the United States restoring their relationship to a better place overnight, the freezing winter night in Beijing sharply brought me back to reality. This bilateral relationship is too complex to be simply defined as good or bad. Besides, it seems too naive to think that narrowing differences between the two countries is as simple as blending Chinese and Western music in a symphony, just like the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Beijing Philharmonic Choir in their collaboration performance. But I’m still convinced that it’s not only meaningful, but also our responsibility, to improve the most critical bilateral ties for the better.
Martin Luther King once said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” The whole world has its eyes on the two major countries. From San Francisco onward, to continue the positive spin in China-U.S. relations, more “maintenance work” is needed to translate the “San Francisco Vision” into real actions and efforts that can truly help keep the relationship on the track of sound and steady development.