A missed opportunity in Bali

Leader-to-leader summits have long been described as the crown jewels of diplomacy. That was the hope with the Nov. 14 meeting in Bali between US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on the eve of the annual G20 meeting. Despite images of two beaming presidents holding hands before their three-hour meeting, the Bali summit achieved little. It was predictable, it took a lot of rhetoric. Biden “absolutely” ruled out any possibility of a new Cold War, and Xi stressed the need to get the US-China relationship back on track. Post-summit readings from both sides emphasized the usual platitudes of honest, direct and frank discussions between the old friends. But as the US-China conflict has escalated dramatically over the past five years — from a trade war, to a technology war, to the early battles of a new Cold War — the Bali summit was remarkably brief. . The bilateral relationship deteriorated further in the three months leading up to the summit, highlighted by Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, Congressional approval of the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Biden administration’s aggressive sanctions on advanced semiconductor exports to China. America’s tough approach to China was on a collision course with China’s increasingly muscular intransigence.

The lofty rhetoric at the Biden-Xi summit did little 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 UK, Europe (especially Germany) and Asia (e.g. Japan) to join its campaign to stifle China’s efforts in artificial intelligence and quantum computing – essential. to the country’s push for indigenous innovation. Furthermore, while anxieties in Taiwan have been reduced, this may be short-lived; The next presumptive speaker of the US House, Kevin McCarthy, has promised a quick trip to Taipei, surely targeting the most important diplomatic “red line” that Xi highlighted in Bali. The denial of the Cold War reflected in the summit statements of both leaders does not exactly match the facts.

This disconnect between rhetoric and reality is not unique to the kabuki of diplomacy, especially when conflict resolution is effectively placed in the hands of individual leaders and, by implication, subject to the politics of their respective power projections. Bali provided Xi with the ideal platform to demonstrate China’s extraordinary concentration of power after the 20th Party Congress in October. At the same time, Bali gave Biden an opportunity to muster an emotional defense of a fragile democracy following his party’s surprising run in the US midterm elections. The Bali summit was a classic example of diplomatic drama, highlighting the stark contrast between two very different political systems. De-escalating the conflict between two very different political systems ultimately requires the depersonalization of policies and actions on both sides. This was almost impossible under former US President Donald Trump. It’s still a challenge with Biden. And now it is extremely difficult in a Xi-centric China.

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What is needed instead is a new framework for Sino-American engagement. The personalized policy of exchanges between leaders must be augmented by an institutionalized relationship management framework—a US-China secretariat. The mandate of the secretariat would be broad. It would address controversial issues ranging from economics and trade to technology and state-subsidized industrial policies to human rights and cyber security. But it would address these issues collaboratively, with equal complements of high-level Chinese and American professionals working as combined teams rather than as two isolated, country-specific groups. Located in a neutral location, the secretariat would focus full-time on all aspects of the relationship, replacing temporary staffing efforts that are hastily assembled to prepare for specific summits, such as Bali, or for earlier efforts, such as US-China Strategies and Strategies. Economic dialogue. The new US-China secretariat would have four key responsibilities:

Framing relationships: This would include jointly written policy ‘white papers’, along with the joint development of databases and quality cleanup of dual-platform statistics. These activities would be aimed at supporting regular meetings between the leaders and senior officials of both countries, as well as a background for military-to-military talks.

Convening: The Secretariat will bring together existing networks of relationship expertise from both countries, including academics, think tanks, trade and business associations and groups involved in the so-called Track II dialogues. The purpose would be to serve as a clearinghouse for talent that could be used to address issues of mutual interest. Collaborative efforts in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic would have been an obvious and important example.

Oversight and Compliance: This role would focus on the implementation and monitoring of existing and new agreements between the US and China. As conflicts do arise, the US-China secretariat, empowered with a transparent conflict resolution and screening function, could provide a first stop for grievances.

Responsiveness: The Secretariat will support a transparent, open web platform, complete with a public version of the US-China Database, working papers by Secretariat researchers, and a co-authored quarterly review of US-China relations issues.

In short, a US-China secretariat could elevate the bilateral relationship to the importance it deserves in the governance of both countries. It would come with the added benefit of a shared workspace to cultivate a climate of interpersonal familiarity. Building trust 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 climate and food security working groups. It was, at best, a public relations effort to provide a brief respite in the ill-fated progression of the conflict’s escalation. But there was no substance, no strategy, no path to de-escalation. The personalized leader-to-leader summit played with the power that autocracies thrive on and fragile democracies cling to. As such, it was more of a political statement than a path to compromise.

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A US-China secretariat would have turned the Bali summit into a collaborative opportunity to resolve the conflict. It could have presented a rich, depersonalized agenda that tackled the tough issues and false narratives that divide the two superpowers — from the economy and human rights to global health and climate change. Engaged in the worst conflict in 50 years, both the United States and China need a new framework for engagement more than ever.

The writer is former chairman, Morgan Stanley Asia and faculty member, Yale University

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