Leader-to-leader summits have long been portrayed as the crown jewels of diplomacy. Such was the hope with the November 14 meeting in Bali between US president Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, on the eve of the annual G20 meeting. Notwithstanding the images of two beaming presidents grasping hands before their three-hour meeting, the Bali summit accomplished little. Predictably, it was long on rhetoric. Biden “absolutely” ruled out any possibility of a new Cold War, and Xi stressed the need to put the US-China relationship back on track. Post-summit readouts from both sides stressed the usual platitudes of frank, direct, and candid discussions between old friends. But, with the US-China conflict having escalated dramatically in the past five years—from a trade war, to a tech war, to the early skirmishes of a new Cold War—the Bali summit was remarkably short on action. The bilateral relationship had deteriorated further in the three months leading up to the summit—underscored by Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, congressional passage of the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Biden administration’s aggressive sanctions on exports of advanced semiconductors to China. America’s hardline approach toward China was on a collision course with China’s increasingly muscular intransigence.
The lofty rhetoric at the Biden-Xi summit did nothing to change that. High tariffs remain in place on both sides of the world’s most important trade relationship. And now the Biden administration is building a new “coalition of the willing” in the United Kingdom, Europe (especially Germany), and Asia (for example, Japan) to join its campaign to stifle Chinese efforts in artificial intelligence and quantum computing—crucial to the country’s push for indigenous innovation. Moreover, while Taiwan anxieties were lowered, that may be short-lived; America’s presumptive next Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, has promised a quick trip to Taipei—taking dead aim at the most important diplomatic “red line” that Xi highlighted in Bali. The Cold War denialism reflected in both leaders’ summit statements doesn’t exactly fit the facts.
This disconnect between rhetoric and reality is hardly unique in the kabuki of diplomacy, especially when conflict resolution is effectively placed in the hands of individual leaders and, by inference, subject to the politics of their respective projections of power. Bali enabled Xi with the ideal platform to demonstrate China’s extraordinary concentration of power in the aftermath of October’s 20th Party Congress. At the same time, Bali provided Biden with the opportunity to muster a stirring defense of a fragile democracy following his party’s surprising resilience in the US midterm elections. The Bali summit was a classic example of diplomatic stagecraft, underscoring the sharp contrast between two very different political systems. De-escalation of conflict between two very different political systems ultimately requires depersonalisation of policies and actions on both sides. That was all but impossible under former US president Donald Trump. It is still challenging with Biden. And now it is exceedingly difficult in a Xi-centric China.
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What is needed, instead, is a new framework for Sino-American engagement. The personalised politics of leader-to-leader exchanges needs to be augmented by an institutionalised framework of relationship management—a US-China secretariat. The secretariat’s mandate would be broad. It would address contentious issues ranging from economics and trade to technology and state-subsidised industrial policies to human rights and cyber security. But it would tackle those issues collaboratively, with equal complements of high-level Chinese and American professionals working as co-mingled teams rather than as two siloed, country-specific groups. Located in a neutral venue, the secretariat would focus full-time on all aspects of the relationship, supplanting temporary staffing efforts that are hastily assembled to prepare for specific summits, such as Bali, or for earlier efforts such as the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. The new US-China secretariat would have four key responsibilities:
Relationship framing: This would feature jointly authored policy “white papers,” along with joint database development and quality scrubbing of dual-platform statistics. These activities would be aimed at supporting regular meetings between leaders and senior officials of both countries, as well as background for military-to-military discussions.
Convening: The secretariat would bring together existing networks of relationship expertise from both countries, including academics, think tanks, business and trade associations, and groups engaged in so-called Track II dialogues. The goal would be to serve as a talent clearinghouse that could be tapped to address problems of mutual interest. Collaborative efforts during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic would have been an obvious and important example.
Oversight and compliance: This role would target the implementation and monitoring of existing and new agreements between the US and China. With conflicts bound to arise, the US-China secretariat, empowered with a transparent conflict-resolution and screening function, could provide a first stop for the airing of grievances.
Outreach: The secretariat would support a transparent, open, web-based platform, complete with a public version of the US-China database, working papers of secretariat researchers, and a co-authored quarterly review of US-China relationship issues.
In short, a US-China secretariat could elevate the bilateral relationship to the importance it deserves in both countries’ governance. It would come with the added benefit of a shared workspace to nurture a climate of interpersonal familiarity. Trust-building often starts with small steps. Bali offered photo ops, the typically ambiguous assurances of diplomacy, more hype for US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s upcoming trip to Beijing, and vague promises of new working groups on climate and food security. It was, at best, a public-relations effort to provide a brief respite in the ominous progression of conflict escalation. But there was no substance, no strategy, no path to de-escalation. The personalised leader-to-leader summit played to the power on which autocracies thrive and to which precarious democracies cling. As such, it was more of a political statement than a road to compromise.
A US-China secretariat would have turned the Bali summit into a collaborative opportunity for conflict resolution. It could have presented a rich, depersonalised agenda that tackled the tough issues and false narratives that divide the two superpowers—from economics and human rights to global health and climate change. Embroiled in their worst conflict in 50 years, both the United States and China need a new framework of engagement more than ever.
The writer is former chairman, Morgan Stanley Asia, and faculty member, Yale University