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Seeing Xi + APEC Readout Deep Read
What really matters for strategic competition? Hint: it’s not pandas
I flew to San Francisco with one goal: see Xi.
APEC press pass in hand, I figured it couldn’t be too hard. There was the plane landing, a CEO Summit speech, a Xi-Biden lunch, and even a gala dinner for the business community.
One by one those plans fell apart. The APEC press pass was useless — you needed to be in pool coverage to do anything cool. Xi bailed on the CEO Summit. And the gala dinner comms person sent a polite rejection email addressing me as “Jordyn.”
Still, I figured, I was here. Flying standby is a thing for Xi galas, right? So yesterday afternoon I camped out outside the Hyatt Regency alongside Falun Gong and pro-CCP protesters, hoping that maybe I could talk my way in.
I survived the first cut after SF Police cleared out everyone on the hotel side of the street who wasn’t in a suit. Four hours later, without a QR code I couldn’t get past security at the door. But I came away with a selfie with someone way cooler than the big man.
Freshman year in college, I hiked to West Point with a press pass to see Obama announce the surge in Afghanistan. Security had tightened after the Salahis crashed a State Dinner, and after being misdirected a few times I was herded away. At 18, a little too eager and persistent, a Secret Service member who was trying to help me out let me know that “once an MP tells you to leave, you leave.”
A blogpost about that night prompted someone at Mediaite to cold-email me, saying he liked my writing and wanted to bring me on as an intern. That was a shot in the arm that helped convince me maybe I could do this professionally. Here I am now, fifteen years later, deeply grateful that you all allow me to write for a living, which more than makes up for not seeing Xi.
Xi-Biden Takeaways and What Really Drives Long Term Competition
The readout from the Xi-Biden summit helps to explain why I don’t spend much time anymore on ChinaTalk looking directly at the day-to-day diplomacy of the bilateral relationship. Absent a dramatic change in leadership in Beijing, the strategic competition frame of the relationship will be here for at least a decade to come. In that context, Xi has made it perfectly clear that he is not interested in substantive cooperation on big issues, and turning on and off working groups won’t lead to meaningful breakthroughs.
The headlines from this meeting are the resumption of mil-mil dialogue and pandas. Insofar as zoom calls or mammals reduce the chance that a Chinese fighter crashes into an American one, I’m all for it. But I’m doubtful that hotlines will change dangerous PLA behavior, much less strategic intentions. As I got into with Michèle Flournoy earlier this year, even when the US-China relationship was in a better space a decade ago, military dialogues were a waste of time. Flournoy said:
Risk-reduction measures and crisis communications are things we’ve tried even when there was a lot of dialogue. Back in the Obama administration when we had this regular tempo of strategic and economic dialogues, I used to meet with my PLA counterpart twice a year and so forth.
We tried to push the issue then — things like a hotline or incidents at sea agreements. These were mechanisms we put in place in the Cold War with the Soviets.
The Chinese have never been willing to talk about that, even in better times in the relationship.
They say two things. “You seem to really want this. So if do want this, we will give it to you only if you give something to us that we really want.” Stop bothering China about Taiwan. Stop talking about human rights. Of course, that’s not going to happen.
They also say, “If we put risk-reduction measures in place, that will create an environment where you’re incentivized to adopt riskier behaviors because we have these protocols, so we don’t want to do that.”
They just see it through a totally different lens. Consequently, when the spy balloon incident happened, the US was calling on the supposed hotline for days before anybody answered the phone.
Where the uncertainties lie in the future balance of power is where I am most interested in exploring policy questions. I laid out my schema to kick off the Kurt Campbell interview:
Let’s set a baseline goal for US policy in 2050: Michael Green says the traditional US aim is to oppose any power exercising hegemonic control over Asia or the Pacific.
My rubric for the three things the US needs to execute on are long-term economic growth, maintaining alliance networks, and not imploding domestically. Plus, we have a major war as a potential wild card there.
The only bilateral question that really matters here is risk of war, which I don’t think San Francisco gave all much new clarity into. The more important storylines for the long term coming out of APEC are the ones to do with America’s relationships with its allies, like the impending collapse of IPEF and the continuing rapprochement between Japan and South Korea.
On that, the questions where outcomes remain uncertain that ChinaTalk could say something interesting about include:
How aggressively and successfully will Congress and the Administration pursue measures like export controls that seek to limit China’s access to game-changing technology?
Will big policy swings like the Chips Act change the trajectory of critical industries?
And how are the two nations grappling with technological developments like AI and drones that have the potential to meaningfully boost long-term productivity and reshape warfare?
Specifically for the Chinese side:
How much progress is Chinese industry making on catching up and surpassing G7 firms? We better understand what drives leadership decisionmaking on policy around critical technology?
How is the correlation of forces across the Taiwan strait changing over time and what drives Beijing’s thinking on escalating over Taiwan?
Can Beijing do anything to change this chart’s trajectory, which in the long term is the one that probably matters the most for which country will be able to define the twenty-first century?
For a primer on what went down between Xi and Biden, I’m reposting a condensed version of a post from Manoj Kewalramani, who writes the excellent Tracking People’s Daily, a daily read of the front page of the People’s Daily.
This seems to have been a productive meeting, with the big outcome being the resumption of military-to-military communication. There is clearly intent, for the moment, to engender some degree of predictability and stability. Considering China’s strategic interests, its deepening economic challenges, and the potential volatility in American policy owing to domestic politics over the next year or so mean that predictability and stability in ties are useful. That said, I don’t think the meeting changes the fundamental direction of China-US ties.
Going through the readouts, there are clear differences over several issues. Let me highlight a few:
On the nature of the relationship, Biden was unequivocal that the US and China “are in competition.” Xi clearly does not want to accept the framework of competition, arguing that “major power competition cannot solve the problems facing China, the US, and the world.”
While Biden talked about America’s “ironclad commitment to defending our Indo-Pacific allies” and that the US will “invest in the sources of American strength at home and align with allies and partners around the world,” Xi sees this as containment. He warned quite clearly that the US should not scheme to suppress and contain China.
On technology de-risking, Biden pitched this as a security imperative and was clear that this will continue. Xi, on the other hand, was clear that China does not see it as a national security issue for the US. He said, “Suppressing China's science and technology is to curb China’s high-quality development and deprive the Chinese people of their right to development.”
On Taiwan, Xi had specific asks, i.e. the US should stop arming Taiwan and support China’s peaceful reunification. He was also adamant about the US not crossing “red lines” and “flip-flopping.” Biden, meanwhile, said that the US opposes any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side and called for restraint by the PLA. Clearly, stability is important to both, but these positions are not exactly in congruence with each other.
Finally, I am still thinking through what this meeting means from a domestic politics perspective for both sides. I think both men derive very limited value from that perspective. Xi does not walk away with anything specific apart from perhaps the positioning of being a statesman and that the two sides working on broad transnational issues. Among other things, Biden at least gets the tangible outcomes of resuming military dialogue, the climate change working group, and the counternarcotics working group, which I presume would have some domestic purchase.
“The two leaders held a candid and constructive discussion on a range of bilateral and global issues including areas of potential cooperation and exchanged views on areas of difference. President Biden emphasized that the United States and China are in competition, noting that the United States would continue to invest in the sources of American strength at home and align with allies and partners around the world. He stressed that the United States would always stand up for its interests, its values, and its allies and partners. He reiterated that the world expects the United States and China to manage competition responsibly to prevent it from veering into conflict, confrontation, or a new Cold War.”
Some key achievements:
They welcomed the resumption of bilateral cooperation to combat global illicit drug manufacturing and trafficking, including synthetic drugs like fentanyl, and establishment of a working group for ongoing communication and law enforcement coordination on counternarcotics issues. (Jordan: very skeptical anything substantive will come out of this).
The two leaders welcomed the resumption of high-level military-to-military communication, as well as the US-China Defense Policy Coordination Talks and the US-China Military Maritime Consultative Agreement meetings. Both sides are also resuming telephone conversations between theater commanders.
The leaders affirmed the need to address the risks of advanced AI systems and improve AI safety through US-China government talks. (Jordan: more on this later, I’m pretty pessimistic but who knows.)
They welcomed recent positive discussions between their respective special envoys for climate, including on national actions to reduce emissions in the 2020s, on common approaches toward a successful COP 28, and on operationalizing the Working Group on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s to accelerate concrete climate actions.
The two leaders agreed that their teams will follow up on their discussions in San Francisco with continued high-level diplomacy and interactions, including visits in both directions and ongoing working-level consultations in key areas, including on commercial, economic, financial, Asia-Pacific, arms control and nonproliferation, maritime, export control enforcement, policy-planning, agriculture, and disability issues.
Other key points:
“President Biden underscored the United States’ support for a free and open Indo-Pacific that is connected, prosperous, secure, and resilient. The President reaffirmed the United States’ ironclad commitment to defending our Indo-Pacific allies. The President emphasized the United States’ enduring commitment to freedom of navigation and overflight, adherence to international law, maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea and East China Sea, and the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Biden’s goal in the Russia-Ukraine war is to “ensure Ukraine emerges from this war as a democratic, independent, sovereign, and prosperous nation that can deter and defend itself against future aggression.” With regard to the Israel-Hamas war, Biden “emphasized the importance of all countries using their influence to prevent escalation and expansion of the conflict.” Biden raised “human rights abuses” in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong.
“On Taiwan, President Biden emphasized that our one China policy has not changed and has been consistent across decades and administrations. He reiterated that the United States opposes any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side, that we expect cross-strait differences to be resolved by peaceful means, and that the world has an interest in peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. He called for restraint in the PRC’s use of military activity in and around the Taiwan Strait.”
“The President emphasized that the United States will continue to take necessary actions to prevent advanced US technologies from being used to undermine our own national security, without unduly limiting trade and investment.”
The two heads of state had a candid and in-depth exchange of views on strategic, overall, and directional issues related to Sino-US relations as well as major issues related to world peace and development. … Xi Jinping pointed out that the world today is undergoing major changes unseen in a century, and China and the United States have two options: one is to strengthen solidarity and cooperation, work together to address global challenges, and promote global security and prosperity. The other is to adopt a zero-sum mentality, provoke conflict between camps, and lead the world to turmoil and division. The two choices represent two directions that will determine the future of mankind and the future of the planet. As the most important bilateral relationship in the world, Sino-US relations must be considered and planned within this broader context. It is impossible for China and the US not to interact and engage with each other. It is unrealistic for one side to change the other, and conflict and confrontation will have unbearable consequences for both sides. Major power competition cannot solve the problems facing China, the US, and the world. This earth can accommodate both China and the US, and one country’s success is an opportunity for the other. 两国元首就事关中美关系的战略性、全局性、方向性问题以及事关世界和平和发展的重大问题坦诚深入地交换了意见...习近平指出，当今世界正经历百年未有之大变局，中美有两种选择：一种是加强团结合作，携手应对全球性挑战，促进世界安全和繁荣。另一种是抱持零和思维，挑动阵营对立，让世界走向动荡和分裂。两种选择代表着两个方向，将决定人类前途和地球未来。作为世界上最重要的双边关系，中美关系要放在这个大背景下思考和谋划。中美不打交道是不行的，想改变对方是不切实际的，冲突对抗的后果是谁都不能承受的。大国竞争解决不了中美两国和世界面临的问题。这个地球容得下中美两国。中美各自的成功是彼此的机遇.
Xi Jinping “explained the essential characteristics and connotation of Chinese-style modernization, as well as China’s development prospects and strategic intentions. Xi Jinping pointed out that China’s development follows its own logic and laws, and it is comprehensively promoting the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation through Chinese-style modernization. China does not follow the old path of colonization and plunder, does not pursue the crooked path of a strong country seeking hegemony, and neither does it engage in exporting ideology. China has no plans to surpass or unseat the United States, and the US should not scheme to suppress and contain China.” 习近平深刻阐释了中国式现代化的本质特征和内涵意义，以及中国的发展前景和战略意图。习近平指出，中国的发展有自身的逻辑和规律，中国正在以中国式现代化全面推进中华民族伟大复兴，中国不走殖民掠夺的老路，不走国强必霸的歪路，也不搞意识形态输出。中国没有超越或者取代美国的规划，美国也不要有打压遏制中国的打算.
Xi then emphasized the importance of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and win-win cooperation for China-US ties and outlined five pillars for shaping the future relationship. Xinhua English covers these five pillars well:
First, China and the United States should jointly develop a right perception. China is consistently committed to having a stable, healthy, and sustainable relationship with the United States, and China has interests that must be safeguarded, principles that must be upheld, and red lines that must not be crossed. It is hoped that the two countries can be partners, respect each other, and coexist peacefully.
Second, China and the US should manage disagreements effectively. Disagreements should not be a chasm that keeps the two countries apart. Instead, the two sides should look for ways to build bridges to help them walk toward each other. It is important that both sides appreciate each other's principles and red lines, and refrain from flip-flopping, being provocative, and crossing the lines. The two sides should have more communication, more dialogues and more consultations, and calmly handle their differences as well as accidents.
Third, China and the US should jointly advance mutually beneficial cooperation. The two countries have broad common interests in a wide range of areas, including traditional areas such as the economy, trade, and agriculture, as well as emerging areas such as climate change and artificial intelligence (AI). Under the current circumstances, the common interests of the two countries have not decreased, but increased. It is important to fully utilize the restored and new mechanisms in foreign policy, economy, finance, commerce, agriculture, and other fields, and carry out cooperation in such areas as counternarcotics, judicial and law enforcement affairs, AI, and science and technology.
Fourth, China and the United States should jointly shoulder responsibilities as major countries. The problems facing human society cannot be solved without cooperation between major countries. China and the US should lead by example, step up coordination and cooperation on international and regional issues, and provide more public goods for the world. The two sides should keep their initiatives open to each other, or coordinate and connect them for synergy, to benefit the world.
Fifth, China and the US should jointly promote people-to-people exchanges. The two sides should increase flights, advance tourism cooperation, expand subnational exchanges, strengthen educational cooperation and cooperation on affairs related to the disabled, reduce negative factors that hinder people-to-people exchanges, and encourage and support greater interactions and communication between their people, so as to consolidate the foundation for the healthy development of China-US relations.
“Xi Jinping elaborated on the principled position on the Taiwan issue in depth, pointing out that the Taiwan issue has always been the most important and sensitive issue in Sino-US relations. China attaches great importance to the relevant positive statements made by the United States during the Bali meeting. The US should embody its stance of not supporting ‘Taiwan independence’ in concrete actions, stop arming Taiwan, and support China’s peaceful reunification. China will realize reunification; this is unstoppable.” 习近平深入阐述了台湾问题上的原则立场，指出，台湾问题始终是中美关系中最重要、最敏感的问题。中方重视美方在巴厘岛会晤中作出的有关积极表态。美方应该将不支持“台独”的表态体现在具体行动上，停止武装台湾，支持中国和平统一。中国终将统一，也必然统一.
Xi Jinping pointed out that the US has continuously taken measures against China in terms of export controls, investment reviews, and unilateral sanctions, which have seriously damaged China’s legitimate interests. China’s development is driven by innovation. Suppressing China’s science and technology is to curb China’s high-quality development and deprive the Chinese people of their right to development. China’s development and growth have an endogenous logic and cannot be stopped by external forces. It is hoped that the US will take China’s concerns seriously, take action, lift unilateral sanctions, and provide a fair, just, and nondiscriminatory environment for Chinese companies. 习近平指出，美方在出口管制、投资审查、单边制裁方面不断采取针对中国的举措，严重损害中方正当利益。中国的发展是以创新驱动的，打压中国科技就是遏制中国高质量发展，剥夺中国人民的发展权利。中国的发展壮大有内生逻辑，是外部力量阻挡不了的。希望美方严肃对待中方关切，采取行动，取消单边制裁，为中国企业提供公平、公正、非歧视的环境.
After this, there’s a long paragraph on Biden’s comments:
Biden stated that I have always believed that US-China relations are the most important bilateral relations in the world. Conflict between the US and China is not inevitable. A stable and developing China is in the interest of the United States and the world. China’s economic growth is beneficial not only to the United States but also to the world. Maintaining stable US-China relations, preventing conflicts, managing differences, and cooperating in areas that serve the interests of both sides will help the two countries better deal with the problems they face individually and jointly. I would like to reaffirm the five commitments made during the meeting in Bali, namely: the United States does not seek a new Cold War, does not seek to change China’s system, does not seek to oppose China by strengthening alliance relationships, does not support “Taiwan independence,” and has no intention of engaging in conflict with China. The economies of the United States and China are interdependent. The US is happy to see China develop and prosper, and does not seek to suppress or contain China’s development, nor does it seek to decouple from China. The US adheres to the one-China policy, welcomes dialogue between various departments and levels of both sides, and is willing to continue to maintain open and candid communication with China to enhance understanding, avoid misunderstandings, and manage differences. The US is willing to continue to develop economic and trade relations with China and strengthen cooperation in important fields such as climate change, drug control, and artificial intelligence. It is happy to see the two countries increase direct flights and expand educational, scientific and technological exchanges and personnel exchanges. 拜登表示，我始终认为，美中关系是世界上最重要的双边关系，美中冲突并非不可避免，一个稳定和发展的中国符合美国和世界的利益，中国经济增长有利于美国，也有利于世界。美中关系保持稳定，防止冲突，管控分歧，并在符合双方利益的领域开展合作，有助于两国更好应对各自和共同面临的问题。我愿重申在巴厘岛会晤中作出的五点承诺，即：美国不寻求新冷战，不寻求改变中国体制，不寻求通过强化同盟关系反对中国，不支持“台湾独立”，无意同中国发生冲突。美中经济相互依赖，美国乐见中国发展富裕，不寻求打压遏制中国发展，不寻求同中国脱钩。美方恪守一个中国政策，欢迎双方各部门各层级开展对话，愿继续同中方保持开放坦诚的沟通，增进了解，避免误解，管控分歧。美方愿同中方持续发展经贸关系，在气候变化、禁毒、人工智能等重要领域加强合作，乐见两国增加直航航班，扩大教育科技交流和人员往来.
“The two heads of state recognized the efforts made by the two teams since their meeting in Bali to discuss the establishment of guiding principles for Sino-US relations, and emphasized the need for mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, maintenance of communication, prevention of conflicts, and abiding by the United Nations Charter, along with cooperating in areas of common interest and responsibly manage competitive factors in bilateral relations. The two heads of state welcomed both teams to continue discussions on these issues.” 两国元首认可双方团队自巴厘岛会晤以来讨论确立中美关系指导原则所作努力，强调要相互尊重、和平共处、保持沟通、防止冲突、恪守《联合国宪章》，在有共同利益的领域开展合作，负责任地管控双边关系中的竞争因素。两国元首欢迎双方团队继续就此讨论。
Thereafter, the readout lists the achievements from the meeting:
Establishment of an intergovernmental dialogue on AI;
Establishment of a Sino-US anti-drug cooperation working group;
Restoring high-level communication between the two militaries on the basis of equality and respect, including working meetings between the defense departments of China and the United States, the China-US Military Maritime Consultation Mechanism and phone calls between theater leaders of the Chinese and American militaries;
Agreement to further significantly increase flights early next year;
Expanding exchanges in education, foreign students, youth, culture, sports, and business circles; [Jordan: does this mean we’ll get fewer exit bans?]
Launching the Working Group on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s.
The readout ends by saying,
This meeting was positive, comprehensive and constructive, and pointed out the direction for improving and developing Sino-US relations. San Francisco should become a new starting point for stabilising Sino-US relations. The two heads of state tasked their teams to promptly follow up and implement the new vision reached at this meeting on the basis of implementing the consensus reached at the Bali meeting. The two heads of state agreed to continue to maintain regular contact. 这次会晤积极、全面、富有建设性，为改善和发展中美关系指明了方向。旧金山应该成为稳定中美关系的新起点。两国元首责成双方团队在落实好巴厘岛会晤共识基础上，及时跟进和落实本次会晤达成的新愿景。两国元首同意继续保持经常性联系.
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