China, US build consensus through ‘San Francisco Vision’


Crowds wave flags to welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping’s arrival in San Francisco on Nov. 14. Photo: CFP

On Nov. 15, Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden held a meeting at the Filoli Estate in San Francisco, marking the first in-person meeting of the two heads of state since the summit in Bali, Indonesia, a year prior. This “critical historic moment” has attracted worldwide attention, with the two leaders engaging in a candid, in-depth, and constructive dialogue, culminating in the establishment of the “San Francisco Vision” oriented toward the future.

As the most important bilateral relationship in the world, China-US relations have been fraught with twists and turns, but has ultimately been steered back on course and is set to progress positively. Does this recent meeting in San Francisco signify a thaw and improvement in China-US relations following a prolonged frosty period? What role will the San Francisco Vision play in guiding future interactions between the two nations? Do the interactions between the two leaders convey a positive message regarding easing current global tensions and maintaining world peace and stability? To address these and other issues, CSST conducted interviews with three esteemed scholars: Ni Feng, director of the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; Mushahid Sayed, chairperson of the Senate Defense Committee of Pakistan; and Josef Mahoney, an American professor from the School of Politics and International Relations at the East China Normal University. 

A new starting point

During the meeting, Xi noted that a year has passed since their last meeting in Bali, and a lot has happened since then.

In the interview with CSST, Ni elaborated that over the course of the year, the “balloon incident” occurred, sparking tensions between the two nations, and there were also escalations related to the Taiwan question. The world has also experienced a new round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Ukraine crisis remains in mired complexity. 

Against this backdrop, the meeting between the two heads of state sends a vital message of stability—China and the United States, as the world’s top two economies, actively seek to ease their bilateral relations and join hands to tackle multiple risks and uncertainties facing the two countries and the globe, Ni said. Therefore, this San Francisco meeting is regarded as a transition in China-US relations in the past few years, and a new starting point to reinitiate the relations between the two sides.

Ni added that this meeting can be interpreted from three perspectives: atmosphere, willingness, and timing. Regarding atmosphere, this is the most fully prepared meeting between the two heads of state since the Trump administration waged the “trade war” against China. In terms of willingness, the momentum of détente between the two sides is more substantial than it was last year. With regard to timing, the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting held in San Francisco created a good opportunity for face-to-face exchanges between Xi and Biden. 

“From the optics & atmospherics, it seems to have been a good meeting, both smiling and exchanging informal pleasantries without any rancour, and most importantly, demonstrating mutual respect for each other personally as well as their countries’ respective positions on issues they disagree with. The ups and downs and twists and turns are inevitable in the China-US relationship, but the core of the relationship should be consistent and stable, the key ingredient of which is that channels of communication are always open to avert a crisis, which is now the case,” Sayed said.

Mahoney commented that this meeting was actually arranged in some respects like a mini summit, perhaps the closest equivalent of a summit the US can stomach politically at this point. In this respect, the meeting was very positive and exceeded expectations. 

As Mahoney pointed out, there are many more areas of convergence than divergence between the two giants: trade, climate change, and AI. “The United States perhaps realizes it’s unable to restructure its economy to go green. The United States now realizes America will pay very high costs associated with climate change, and it might have to rely on China and others, including Brazil and India.”

‘Five pillars’ for bilateral relations

During the meeting, Xi called on the two sides to jointly build “five pillars” for bilateral relations: developing a right perception; managing disagreements effectively; jointly advancing mutually beneficial cooperation; jointly shouldering responsibilities as major countries; and jointly promoting people-to-people exchanges.

When discussing the widely debated pillar “managing disagreements effectively,” Mahoney emphasized that it is unrealistic to expect both countries will see eye-to-eye on all issues. However, Xi realized the importance of effectively managing these differences, preventing them from becoming the dominant feature in the relationship. 

Unfortunately, the United States has not only allowed real differences to become dominant, but has also imagined non-existent differences and, when possible, created new ones that didn’t exist before. Consequently, differences, old or new, real or imagined, have proliferated, Mahoney noted.

“This meeting might provide a breakthrough point, one where the United States can draw a line, rest assured that differences have been well-delineated and securitized, and now focus on common ground and cooperation. This would be a remarkable step forward if true,” Mahoney added. 

Adversaries or partners

Xi openly addressed the thorniest aspects of China-US relations. During the meeting, he stressed that he hoped the US side to take China’s concerns seriously and adopt tangible steps to lift unilateral sanctions, so as to provide an equal, fair, and non-discriminatory environment for Chinese enterprises. Xi also posed a thought-provoking question: are China and the United States adversaries or partners? This is the fundamental and overarching issue, according to Xi. Additionally, Xi straightforwardly made it clear: China is ready to be a partner and friend of the United States.

“China acknowledges the principle of emphasizing common ground and reserving differences, but the United States has imposed a rivalry on China,” Mahoney said.  

According to Sayed, it is the American side that has employed bellicosity in its rhetoric, referencing “containment,” “decoupling,” or “wall building” with the launch of the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) partnership, the revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), or the creation of an “Asian NATO,” while also maintaining sanctions and tariffs on trade to wage a New Cold War against China.

“The United States, long addicted to war, is obsessed with maintaining its military, political, financial, and technological hegemony in a changing global scenario where a multipolar world needs multilateralism rather than unilateralism, as the era of ‘sole superpower’ has long ended,” Sayed said. 

“Washington says a New Cold War is not its goal, but what Biden has said versus what he’s done has suffered from a lot of inconsistency. In fact, what the United States said at the meeting regarding China policy is dubious,” Mahoney said.

Mahoney further explained that the United States was built upon and advanced by major-country competition. “Fundamentally, the United States is a creature of major-country competition, a product of the competitive nation-state system and the zero-sum logic that intertwined nationalism, capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, and hegemony, ultimately giving rise to problems like global warfare, global inequality, and the Anthropocene. None of this has fundamentally changed for the United States. It remains deeply rooted in a zero-sum game.” 

China recognizes that major-country competition should not define our era, but until this lesson is embraced by the United States, competition will be difficult to avoid. Regardless of America’s strategic intentions, the breakthroughs in the meeting, however, indicate cooperation is a must, Mahoney added.

Positive for world peace

As Ni noted, China-US tensions have been eased somewhat in comparison to recent years, but there are still many uncertainties. However, the temporary improvement of the relations marked by this meeting will help defuse the current economic and financial risks facing the world. Meanwhile, it is positive for maintaining world peace and stability.

“This is probably the most significant summit of President Biden’s tenure, given the context and consequences. With two crises going on in Europe and the Middle East, this summit has changed the atmosphere and defused tensions in China-US relations. The two countries try to talk with each other, in a civilized discourse,” Sayed added. 

“I’m not yet confident that this meeting signals a true warming in ties. But the potential for warming exists and is greater today than yesterday. In fact, next year is expected to bring fresh challenges given elections in the United States, which will invite even more opportunities for politicization and provocations. So having this meeting now may help forestall some problems that might otherwise tip us into more dangerous modes of conflict,” Mahoney said.

“It is indeed a milestone, but we’ll see whether it’s recalled positively as one in the future. China-US relations were once at a dark crossroads, and there’s a vague or even dark horizon ahead if they stay on the course that’s been followed in recent years,” Mahoney concluded.

Editor:Yu Hui

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