US-China relations: 3 things a Xi-Biden summit should aim to achieve

All eyes are on the upcoming leaders’ meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum, to be held in San Francisco from November 11-17. And with good reason: there is a distinct possibility that US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet on the sidelines of this pan-regional gathering, a year after their last summit in Bali on the eve of the annual G20 summit.

Another Biden-Xi summit could be a sorely needed second chance. Both sides appear to be hard at work preparing. Unlike the Bali meeting, the San Francisco summit must be scripted for success. With the US-China relationship in serious trouble, and a war-torn world in urgent need of leadership, the upcoming summit should pursue three key objectives.

The first is deliverables. Notwithstanding America’s revisionist aversion to engagement with China – in effect, blaming the current conflict on decades of “appeasement” that began when China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 – it is critical to find common ground on which to re-establish constructive dialogue.

The focus should be less on sloganeering – last year’s “floor” or this year’s “de-risking” – and more on clear and achievable objectives. This could include reopening closed consulates (for example, the US consulate in Chengdu and the Chinese consulate in Houston), relaxing visa requirements, increasing direct air flights, and restarting popular student exchanges (such as the Fulbright programme).
Improving people-to-people ties – which the two presidents can easily address if they are serious about re-engagement – often leads to reduced political animosity. By reaching for the low-hanging fruit, Biden and Xi could open the door to talks on more contentious topics, like relaxing constraints on NGOs, the glue that holds societies together, or tackling the fentanyl crisis, in which both countries play a vital role.
But the most urgent deliverable would be a resumption of regular military-to-military communications, which the Chinese suspended after former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August 2022.
The danger posed by this breakdown in military contacts was glaringly obvious during the balloon fiasco in early February, as well as in recent near-misses between the two superpowers’ warships in the Taiwan Strait and aircraft over the South China Sea. The risks of accidental conflict are high and rising.

Second, it is also necessary to articulate aspirational goals. A joint statement from Biden and Xi should underscore their shared recognition of two existential threats facing both countries: climate change and global health.

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Beijing rejects US agency report saying Covid-19 likely emerged from Chinese lab leak

Beijing rejects US agency report saying Covid-19 likely emerged from Chinese lab leak

Of course, a Biden-Xi summit can hardly be expected to resolve these existential problems. But naming them is an important symbolic gesture, evidence of a shared commitment to the collective stewardship of an increasingly precarious world.

That is especially the case with the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, which risks spilling over into a major regional conflict at the same time that the Ukraine war is at a pivotal moment. The US and China could make a real difference by brokering peace agreements in both wars.

Third, Sino-American relations need a new architecture of engagement. A Biden-Xi meeting in San Francisco next month would certainly be a positive development. But annual summits aren’t enough to resolve deep-rooted conflicts between two superpowers.

Xi-Biden meeting alone won’t lift the deep US-China mistrust

I have long favoured a shift from the personalised diplomacy that occurs during infrequent leader-to-leader meetings to an institutionalised model of engagement that provides a permanent, robust framework for continuous troubleshooting and problem solving. My proposal for a US-China secretariat is one such possibility.
Despite the generally positive reception to this idea in China and elsewhere in Asia, American policymakers have shown no interest. In fact, US Representative Mike Gallagher, the Republican chairman of the new House select committee on China, is beating the drum of “zombie engagement”, warning that efforts to reconnect with the Chinese could lead to America’s demise.
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US Representative Mike Gallagher leaves a House Republican conference meeting on Capitol Hill on October 24. Gallagher, the Republican chairman of the House select committee on China, has warned that efforts to reconnect with China could lead to America’s demise. Photo: Getty Images via AFP
At the same time, I am encouraged by the establishment of four new US-Chinese working groups – a result of the summer’s diplomatic efforts. But this is not nearly enough.

Summits between national leaders are often nothing more than media events. Unfortunately, that was the case last year in Bali. Neither the US nor China – to say nothing for the rest of the world – can afford a similarly vacuous outcome this year in San Francisco.

The time for collective action is growing short. Any opportunity for 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.

Stephen S. Roach, a faculty member at Yale University and former chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, is the author of Accidental Conflict: America, China, and the Clash of False Narratives. Copyright: Project Syndicate

South China Morning Post

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