The highly anticipated summit between President Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden adjacent to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in San Francisco last week was focused on repairing their fraught bilateral ties but is largely expected to have “significant global consequences”. The meeting came at the lowest point in their 50-year-old relations and is, therefore, being seen as a breakthrough in itself.
“The meeting identified the direction and drew up a blueprint for the sound, steady and sustained development of bilateral ties,” China’s foreign ministry said as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva termed it a badly needed signal that the world needs to cooperate more. “It sends a signal to the rest of the world that we must find ways to cooperate on those challenges where no country on its own can succeed,” she told Reuters.
The two leaders, who met for four hours, discussed a wide range of issues from personal and military-to-military communications to economic issues to artificial intelligence to the opioid epidemic in Taiwan and the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East.
The agenda’s scope reflects the world’s perilous state and the importance of a functional US-China relationship to addressing international challenges or at least ensuring they do not get worse.
A rift between the two heavy-weight economies forces countries like Pakistan to choose a side
The Xi-Biden meeting is not expected to immediately repair the fraught ties between the two largest global economies, which together produce more than 40 per cent of the world’s goods and services. Yet the world could surely benefit from the “detente” as the rift between Washington and Beijing makes the rest of the world suffer and forces many other countries like Pakistan into a delicate predicament of choosing a side when they actually want to do business with both countries.
The IMF says that such economic fragmentation is damaging to the world. It estimates that higher trade barriers will subtract $7.4 trillion from global economic output after the world has adjusted to the higher trade barriers. IMF chief said the US-China thaw had a positive effect on leaders at the APEC summit, where her key takeaway was that “the spirit of cooperation is demonstrably stronger. And the world does need it.”
When they met for the first time in a year, the two leaders sat down for talks lasting for more than two hours, followed by a working lunch with key officials and a stroll around the gardens.
It was an important opportunity for the two sides to build trust, clear up misgivings, manage differences and expand cooperation.
Before Biden escorted Xi to his car, they had already agreed to open a presidential hotline, resume military-to-military communications severed after the Taiwan visit of then-US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, cooperate on artificial intelligence and curb fentanyl production, thus showing tangible progress in their first face-to-face talks.
While agreeing to disagree peacefully is a start, some observers have warned against overly optimistic predictions.
China’s foreign minister Wang Yi described the San Francisco summit as “a milestone in the history of China-US ties and a major event in current international relations”. The two sides should make a fresh start from San Francisco and build on a new vision to advance the relationship in a healthy, stable and sustainable manner, he said.
“A consensus was reached on more than 20 issues, which covered areas such as politics, diplomacy, cultural exchanges, global governance, military and security. These points are important and will lay a solid foundation for the next in-depth discussions between the two sides,” the top Chinese diplomat said.
The world has suffered one crisis after another — the Covid pandemic, soaring inflation, surging interest rates, conflict in Ukraine and now Gaza — in recent years. “Having the world’s two largest economies at loggerheads at such a fraught moment exacerbates the negative impact of various geopolitical shocks that have hit the world economy,” Eswar Prasad, senior professor of trade policy at Cornell University, was quoted by the international media following the meeting.
Arguing that the world was big enough for both the US and China to coexist, Xi said that the door to talks between the two countries “cannot be closed again”.
Noting the importance of the China-US relationship for the world, he said that turning their back on each other is not an option for China and the US, and conflict and confrontation have unbearable consequences for both sides. He underlined the need for both countries to develop the right perception jointly, manage their disagreements effectively, advance mutually beneficial cooperation, shoulder their responsibilities as major countries and promote people-to-people exchanges.
He also pointed out that US actions against China regarding export control, investment screening and unilateral sanctions seriously hurt China’s legitimate interests, saying stifling China’s technological progress is nothing but a move to contain China’s high-quality development and deprive the Chinese people of their right to development.
BBC reported that there were already signs of a thaw before the summit meeting. For instance, the two sides met in Washington for the first time in years for discussions about their nuclear arsenals. The two countries are still far apart on many issues. While agreeing to disagree peacefully is a start, some observers have warned against overly optimistic predictions.
The Chinese media quoted Chairman of the Kuhn Foundation Robert Lawrence Kuhn as commenting: “To establish a ‘floor’ under Sino-US relations, which will ensure that relations will not continue to become worse, will be a huge contribution to world peace and prosperity. Then, both countries can carefully build back up by finding specific areas of agreement and mutual benefit.
Overall, by helping to stabilise relations, the two leaders gave their overt blessing to re-engagement,“ said Denis Simon, a fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies, adding that it is important for the United States and other Western nations to view China’s development as a positive force to enhance global growth.
After his meeting with Biden, Xi told American investors that China is ready to be a partner and friend of the US, and there is plenty of room for bilateral cooperation. “Whatever stage of development it may reach, China will never pursue hegemony or expansion and will never impose its will on others. China does not seek spheres of influence and will not fight a cold war or a hot war with anyone,” he assured his audience.
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, November 20th, 2023