The San Francisco Vision: Assessing the Xi-Biden Summit

2023-12-29
  • CHINESE PRESIDENT Xi Jinping held a long-expected summit meeting on Nov. 15 with US President Joe Biden at the secluded Filoli Estate south of San Francisco. The summit was the second time the two presidents met in person since Biden took office, the first being in Bali in November 2022. It was the culmination of a series of visits to China by senior US officials since this summer.  The image of the two presidents strolling across the beautiful lawn of the Filoli Estate resort after their four-hour meeting was reassuring to the outside world at a time when the international community is worried that growing tensions and rivalry between the two powers, if not curbed, might render the world divided, if not lead to a new Cold War — or even an inadvertent conflict. Beyond symbolism, however, what exactly did the Filoli Summit achieve? How does Beijing perceive the summit, and what does it imply for China-US relations going forward? Here are a few takeaways: The summit can be summarized through the phrase, “one gap and five key words.” “One gap” refers to the “temperature gap” in media coverage in the two countries. The five keywords are: reassurances, stability, predictability, fundamentality and vulnerability. 


    TEMPERATURE GAP


    If one carefully reads the media coverage of the summit in both countries, one must be struck by the evident “temperature gap.” While the Chinese media enthusiastically hailed the summit as a “milestone” and a “new starting point” for stabilizing the world’s most important bilateral relationship and for steering it in the right direction, the American media’s reaction was lukewarm, taking a “half-empty” attitude in its interpretation. The gap in temperature mirrors the different approaches Beijing and Washington took to the summit. Xi began the conversation by noting the importance of defining the nature of the relationship first. China and the US are faced with two options, the Chinese president observed, whether to “join hands to meet global challenges” or to “cling to the zero-sum mentality, provoke rivalry and confrontation, and drive the world toward turmoil and division.” Xi went on to advocate a new vision for China-US relations going forward, coined as the “San Francisco Vision,” underpinned by “five pillars,” namely, jointly developing the right perception; jointly managing disagreements effectively; jointly advancing mutual co-operation; jointly shouldering responsibilities as major countries; and jointly promoting people-to-people exchanges. Xi made a powerful point by stressing the importance of perceptions. If one mistakenly perceives the other as “a primary competitor, the most consequential geopolitical challenge and a pacing threat,” such a wrong-headed perception will lead to “misinformed policy making, misguided actions, and unwanted results,” Xi said. 

    In contrast, there was an intriguing absence of “vision” on the US side. Indeed, the US approach was more parochial, narrowly focused on managing competition and reaching agreements on functional issues. On top of the list was an agreement to resume high-level military-to-military dialogues, which were suspended last year when former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan. Another agreement was on curtailing precursors to fentanyl, a deadly component of abused drugs sold in the US. Although Beijing sees the fentanyl problem as the result of US domestic governance failures, most Chinese analysts are of the view that Beijing’s willingness to help is a sign of goodwill. In addition, the two sides also agreed to accelerate efforts to tackle the climate crisis and to launch a dialogue on managing artificial intelligence. 

    Part of the gap perhaps can be explained by cultural differences. In Confucian culture, people would define the nature of a relationship before entering into formal interactions. This is called the Rectification of Names (zhengming), a very important doctrine in Confucianism. According to Confucianism, the rectification of names involves the proper designation of things in the web of relationships, thus creating meaning and legitimacy for social behavior and social order. The doctrine of zhengming has been encrypted into the Chinese psyche. In terms of Chinese social behavior, then, relational trust comes only after a relationship is positively defined. Therefore, it is not surprising that at the beginning of the summit, the Chinese side would insist on defining the nature of the relationship properly. 

    Above all, Chinese analysts tend to believe that Biden’s aim in holding the summit is two-fold: reassuring allies by demonstrating his ability to manage China-US relations and showcasing to domestic voters his administration’s diplomatic capabilities in order to achieve political gains ahead of the 2024 US presidential election. 

     

    STRATEGIC REASSURANCES


    Among the first and foremost achievements of the Filoli Summit were the strategic reassurances both leaders gave to each other. The two presidents again acknowledged that no new Cold War should be waged and reaffirmed their determination to stabilize the bilateral relationship. Biden said that “a stable and growing China is good for the United States and the whole world… when the Chinese economy grows, it benefits the United States and the world.” The US, he added, “is glad to see prosperity in China,” a statement that has been missing in the vocabulary of US leaders since Washington began to wage “strategic competition” against China several years ago. Xi unequivocally stated that China “has no plan to surpass or unseat the United States,” therefore, the US “should not scheme to suppress or contain China.” In response, Biden reaffirmed the five commitments he made at the Bali Summit. That is, the US does not seek a new Cold War, does not seek to change China’s political system, does not seek to mobilize its alliance against China, does not support “Taiwan independence,” and has no intention to have a conflict with China. Such commitments are handily dubbed as the “four does nots” and “one no” by the Chinese policy community (or sibu yi wuyi in Chinese). Biden also added another “does not” by proclaiming that the US “does not seek to contain or suppress China’s development or to decouple with China.” Hence, one may suggest that Biden’s commitments now become “five does nots” and “one no” (or wubu yi wuyi in Chinese). 
    The Chinese leader took great efforts to elucidate the logic of Chinese modernization, underscoring that China’s development is driven by its “inherent logic and dynamics.” Hence, there is no truth to the view that the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people should be pre-conditioned on the downfall of US power. Xi went on to emphasize that the world is “big enough” to allow for China and the US to carry out their own paths of development and jointly pursue prosperity. The success of China and the US should be “an opportunity” rather than a threat.  Another strategic reassurance was on the Taiwan issue, one of the “most important and sensitive” issues in China-US relations that potentially could disrupt the bilateral relationship. According to the revelation of US officials, Xi, while urging Washington “take real actions” to “honor its commitment of not supporting ‘Taiwan independence’, “stop arming Taiwan” and “support China’s peaceful reunification,” brushed aside media reports that the mainland had a plan to take military action against Taiwan by 2027 or 2035. Xi made clear China’s determination to realize reunification, stating that the mainland’s reunification with Taiwan is “unstoppable”. In response, Biden reaffirmed that “the United States adheres to the One China policy” and does not support “Taiwan independence.”  Such strategic reassurances might not completely remove qualms over intentions, but they are nevertheless helpful. Strategic reassurances at the highest level of leadership help de-institutionalize tensions and rivalry and therefore reduce the spiral of enmity between the two great powers. By reducing uncertainties about intentions, strategic reassurances also help de-risk or reduce the possibility of miscalculation, and therefore alleviate the burgeoning security dilemma between Beijing and Washington.  


    STABILITY AND PREDICTABILITY


     While acknowledging that the summit did not solve the “structural contradictions” (jiegouxing maodun) in China-US relations or fundamentally change the trajectory of the bilateral relationship, most Chinese analysts nevertheless agree that the summit helped inject stability and predictability into the rocky relationship between Beijing and Washington and therefore reduced the risk of further deterioration. What one gets from the summit is a very clear signal that the two largest economies in the world, rather than pursuing decoupling, are committed to “recouple” on the basis of reciprocity and mutual benefits. Such a positive signal surely will help stabilize the international community’s expectations on China-US relations going forward.  The re-opening of channels of communication and the (re-)establishment of dialogue mechanisms between Beijing and Washington, including re-establishing high-level military dialogues, setting up an anti-drug working group, establishing a joint working group on COP28 and climate change, and opening dialogue on artificial intelligence, clearly will help institutionalize habits of co-operation, and therefore instill more stability and predictability in the China-US relationship. 


    FUNDAMENTALITY


    One of the five pillars China sets for the San Francisco Vision is to jointly promote people-to-people exchanges. Indeed, seeing such exchanges as a fundamental basis or a new “ballast” in China-US relations, Beijing places the hopes of China-US relations on people. In a dinner address that was warmly received by the American business community, Xi stated that it was the people of China and the US who laid the foundation of bilateral relations and the future of the relationship should be “written by our peoples.” Among the agreements the two leaders reached was the decision to increase people-to-people exchanges between the two countries, particularly to significantly increase commercial flights early next year, as well as to expand educational, student, youth, cultural, sports and business exchanges. In his address, Xi also announced that China planned to invite 50,000 American youth to visit and study in China over the next five years. The significance of such a plan seems to have been somewhat underestimated by observers in both countries. In fact, I believe that this is one of the most visionary measures included in the San Francisco Vision, one that could potentially “revolutionize” China-US relations for years and decades down the road. Should it be accomplished, the ambitious plan will amount to one of the largest people-to-people exchange initiatives in history. 
    Arguably, one of the most serious barriers to China-US relations is the “othering” process taking place in the US, which involves dehumanization and demonization of China. No longer believing that “changing China” is plausible, Washington is now reverting to the position that China is a potential challenge and threat to US hegemony. Hence, strategic competition against China. US elites’ conceptualization of China and the world is informed and framed by a deep-rooted, ideology-based, dichotomic framework of democracy vs. authoritarianism. Not surprisingly, therefore, the China narrative in the US is filled with ideological prejudices, self-righteousness, and even implicit racism couched in ideological terms. The previous equilibrium in China-US relations was sustained by what I label an “old engagement consensus,” a bipartisan US consensus on engaging China carried the implicit expectation that China would gradually be “transformed” and become like the US, first economically, and over time, hopefully politically as well. With the collapse of the “old engagement consensus” is the breakdown of the old equilibrium in China-US relations. While acknowledging that it is no longer possible to “change China,” Washington nevertheless shifts from one extreme to another, now perceiving Beijing as bent on challenging American hegemony, therefore posing a threat to American values and the political system. In US elites’ ideational world, there is hardly a possibility of “co-evolution” of the US and China in the international system, or of accepting the rise of another great power that is drastically different in ideology, political system and culture. In order for the San Francisco Vision to become a reality in the years and decades to come, we need to establish what I call a “new engagement consensus” on the basis of mutual respect and reciprocity. Providing an overarching intellectual framework for China-US relations in the decades to come, a “new engagement consensus” would not view China as the “other” that need be transformed, integrated, and ushered-into a US-dominated international order, therefore rectifying a key epistemological fallacy of the old engagement consensus. A new engagement consensus would require that both Washington and Beijing abandon the zero-sum mentality, treat each other as an equal, co-exist and compete in a constructive and positive-sum manner, and co-evolve as two pillars of a future global order and, along with other stakeholders, jointly address shared global challenges and uphold global stability. 
    Clearly, it is China’s belief that by engaging the young generation from the US, China will help cultivate a next generation of US leaders who will be more empathetic to Chinese culture and history, holding fewer ideological prejudices, and more willing to accept China on equal footing. This would therefore lay the foundation for a more stable and constructive China-US relationship decades down the road. People-to-people exchanges, particularly youth exchanges, will help erode if not roll back the othering process, narrow the ingroup-outgroup identity difference, something scholars have identified as key to worsening conflict and confrontation. In a study Professor Alastair Iain Johnston of Harvard University and I carried out a few years ago, we found that social contact will help significantly reduce the ingroup-outgroup identity differences and dampen security-dilemma dynamics by ameliorating key elements of the psychology of security dilemmas. Coincidentally, in recent years, polls such as Gallup and Pew have consistently shown that American youth are among the groups who tend to have fewer ideological prejudices against China and hold the most positive views of China-US relations. Our study, along with similar research, has provided a solid scientific basis for instituting large-scale people-to-people exchange programs such as the one just proposed by China. 


    VULNERABILITY


    Nevertheless, the progress made in China-US relations remains vulnerable. Chinese analysts generally share the view that one summit meeting cannot resolve the “structural contradictions” between China and the US. Looking forward, Chinese analysts see that the vulnerability mostly will come from the upcoming US presidential election in November 2024 and the Taiwan election in January 2024. Given the highly toxic atmosphere and the fact that China-bashing has become a political correctness in the US, it is almost certain that more anti-China rhetoric will be regularly uttered by presidential candidates, including Biden, during the campaign. It is unclear, though, whether Beijing and Washington will have sufficient mutual trust to endure tensions caused by such political attacks without letting loose a spiral of tensions or otherwise allowing domestic politics to skew the trajectory of China-US relations. Furthermore, should Biden be defeated in 2024, a more hawkish Republican presidency will likely unleash new cycles of confrontations and, possibly, plunge the world into a new Cold War. The Taiwan election will also be critical. If pro-independence candidates win the election next month, cross-strait relations and China-US relations might undergo new rounds of tensions, with Beijing trying to deter Taiwan independence by beefing up military deterrence measures and Washington rushing to come to the aid of Taiwan. Consequently, the risk of military conflict might rise. In a worst-case scenario, we might end up having a new pro-independence leader in Taiwan, compounded with a hawkish, anti-China Republican president in the White House. A seeming harbinger of what might be coming: Republican candidates have already been racing to demonstrate their toughness toward Beijing, declaring in recent presidential debates that they would send American troops to “defend Taiwan” against the mainland. 
    The morning the news of Henry A. Kissinger’s death broke, I was going to have a doctoral seminar that I co-teach with Professor Yuan Ming, a mentor of mine who had extensive contacts and a longtime friendship with Kissinger. We decided to turn the class into a special memorial for Kissinger on his many intellectual legacies. Prudence, pragmatism, courage and vision are among the underlying features of Kissinger’s diplomatic thought, I observed, adding, these are the qualities that we need to inherit at a time when China-US relations are at a historic crossroad. Whether we will be able to forge a new engagement consensus and, establish a new equilibrium in China-US relations, as envisaged in the San Francisco Vision, in the coming years and decades will in part depend on whether we can rise above history, conceptualize our world at a philosophical level and imagine a universe of possibilities that are not bounded by prejudices, fear, paranoia and self-righteousness.


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