The Biden-Xi summit proved how far U.S.-China relations have fallen

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To understand the trajectory of relations during Xi Jinping’s decade in power, compare the snapshot provided during this week’s San Francisco summit with what we saw during President Obama’s 2011 summit with President Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor. That summit was held the year before Xi was designated China’s paramount leader.

All the areas of new bilateral cooperation announced in San Francisco simply resumed limited aspects of activities already under way before Xi took power.

Presidents Biden and Xi met this week at the prescheduled, annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in San Francisco. Agreeing to hold the summit on the margins of that multilateral event let the parties avoid awkward protocol issues, such as diplomatic courtesies to be extended during an official visit to a national capital. Mutual distrust is so deep that China did not confirm the meeting at a private estate until a week ahead of time, for fear of a last-minute embarrassment for Xi and China.

The four-hour meeting concluded without a joint statement, but President Biden briefed reporters on the outcome of the talks. He described three concrete achievements: restoring law enforcement cooperation on stopping the flow to the U.S. of fentanyl precursor chemicals and pill presses, resuming direct military-to-military contacts, and initiating expert discussions of “risk and safety issues associated with artificial intelligence.” In a related development, the U.S. and China agreed on a new greenhouse gas agreement. In a throwaway line in response to a reporter’s question, Biden confirmed that he still regards Xi as a “dictator.”

A Chinese Foreign Ministry readout noted that Xi “elaborated at the meeting on the essential features of Chinese modernization and its significance, China’s development prospects, and its strategic intention.” In addition to the concrete areas of cooperation that Biden identified, the statement also mentioned increased people-to-people exchanges as a bilateral goal.

The relationship that Xi inherited in November 2012 from his predecessor could not have been more different. On January 18-21, 2011, Chinese President Hu Jintao paid a state visit to the United States, visiting Washington and Chicago. Hu met with the president, vice president, and congressional leaders.

In the 41-paragraph Joint Statement issued on January 19, 2011, the presidents “reaffirmed their commitment to building a positive, cooperative, and comprehensive U.S.-China relationship for the 21st century” and “actively cooperating on a wide range of security, economic, social, energy, and environmental issues which require deeper bilateral engagement and coordination.”

Paragraph 12 of that text “welcomed progress by the U.S.-China Joint Liaison Group on Law Enforcement Cooperation (JLG) to strengthen law enforcement cooperation across a range of issues.” Paragraph 9 declared that “a healthy, stable, and reliable military-to-military relationship is an essential part of President Obama’s and President Hu’s shared vision for a positive, cooperative, and comprehensive U.S.-China relationship.” Paragraph 11 noted the extension of the U.S.-China Science and Technology Agreement which, in today’s context, could cover topics such as artificial intelligence. Paragraphs 36-39 addressed climate change and related issues. Paragraph 40 discussed expanding people-to-people exchanges.

The Joint Statement also addressed an incredibly wide range of issues: Taiwan, human rights, space, economic dialogues, interactions between the National People’s Congress of China and the U.S. Congress, violent extremism, non-proliferation, transnational crime, stability on the Korean peninsula, Iran’s nuclear program, Sudan, macroeconomics, trade, World Trade Organization negotiations, intellectual property, bilateral investment treaty negotiations, export controls, financial sector issues, currencies, G20 cooperation, energy security, environmental cooperation and people-to-people exchanges that involved U.S. governors, sister city/sister province relationships and students.

Many of the above issues were raised at the 2023 summit and preparatory meetings, but officials merely referred to those matters without agreement in 2023, while the 2011 document describes actual cooperation.

Readers can decide for themselves how and why the U.S.-China relationship has fallen into disrepair, but all can lament the fact that the San Francisco summit merely restarted bilateral cooperation already under way a decade ago. The long list of cooperative activities in the 2011 Joint Statement exists in 2023 as just a wish list of frozen action items.

Jeff Moon is a China trade consultant who is a former assistant U.S. trade representative for China, State Department diplomat, and business executive in China-related roles.

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