Yun Sun on the Biden-Xi Bilateral Summit

Yun Sun is a Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the East Asia Program and Director of the China Program at the Stimson Center. Her expertise is in Chinese foreign policy, U.S.-China relations, and China’s relations with neighboring countries and authoritarian regimes. From 2011 to early 2014, she was a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, jointly appointed by the Foreign Policy Program and the Global Development Program, where she focused on Chinese national security decision-making processes and China-Africa relations. From 2008 to 2011, Yun was the China Analyst for the International Crisis Group based in Beijing, specializing in China’s foreign policy towards conflict countries and the developing world. Before ICG, she worked on U.S.-Asia relations in Washington, DC for five years. Yun earned her master’s degree in international policy and practice from George Washington University, as well as an MA in Asia Pacific studies and a BA in international relations from Foreign Affairs College in Beijing.
Caroline Kim '24 interviewed Ms. Yun Sun on November 26, 2023.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Ms. Yun Sun.

President Joe Biden held a summit with President Xi Jinping in mid-November in San Francisco. Why was this bilateral summit considered historic and what were its most significant achievements?

This meeting is crucial for President Biden in the third year of his presidency as we evaluate U.S.-China relations. While there's been stability, there hasn't been substantial improvement since the Trump administration. Biden aims to demonstrate the prospect for stability between the U.S. and China amidst the great power competition; the goal is competition, not conflict. The administration has made it quite clear that confrontation is not an option, emphasizing the need to manage this balance. The recent San Francisco summit seems to have made progress in this direction and delivered that. In terms of strategic importance, this is the most important piece. 

In terms of tangible deliverables, there are three key points. Firstly, the Chinese agreed to cooperate on the fentanyl issue, a long-standing concern between both nations. This issue holds significant domestic political significance due to its impact on American youth as the No. 1 cause of death. This is one issue that the U.S. has sought Chinese cooperation on, and the Chinese have been dragging their feet. Secondly, there's an agreement to resume military-to-military dialogue that was suspended since Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan last year. This piece is important for stabilizing relations, especially when cooperation between the two nations seems less likely. Both sides are calculating and focusing on their relative gains, making finding common agenda and shared interests challenging. There is a consensus that while cooperation is unlikely, war prevention is still a main shared interest between the two countries. For that to happen, the two militaries need to talk. Thirdly, Xi Jinping’s acknowledgement that China has no plans to attack Taiwan before 2027 is unprecedented. No Chinese president has ever offered such reassurance. This statement has had many implications, offering reassurance to the United States and potentially impacting upcoming Taiwanese elections over time. This is because one of the main points that the opposition party has been arguing against the DPP is that if the party (DPP) wins, then China will attack. Xi Jinping said that China is not going to attack, which means that the military threat that the opposition parties have been playing up is now rendered a null argument by Xi’s denial.

Given tense relations between the U.S. and China, how were the leaders able to overcome their differences and discuss areas of meaningful cooperation? How did this summit play with domestic audiences in the U.S. and China?

The expectations going into the summit were not very high, making meaningful cooperation quite difficult. While the countries did not share the same agenda, they shared the bottom line of war prevention, which sets a low bar.

In terms of real cooperation, there are issues like climate change, global governance, the Ukraine War and the crisis in the Middle East, in which the two countries have shown they can work together. However, it circles back to the issue of relative gains which is a main roadblock in terms of the mentality coming to the issue of cooperation. Still, the two leaders came together and had this meeting, making meaningful deliverables in an important domestic context. 

If you compare the leadership summit this year to the summit in Bali, Indonesia, last November, there is an interesting shift. In Bali, both leaders came from a very strong domestic political position. Xi Jinping had prevailed in the 20th Party Congress and Biden had won a pretty significant victory in the domestic midterm election. Both leaders went to Bali in a quiet strengthened position. However this year, the situation completely changed. Economic recovery after the reopening of China has not really transpired and China's economic problem has become more severe, so Xi Jinping is not necessarily operating from a position of strength. Washington also has domestic problems to take care of both in terms of economic growth, and in terms of politics. Biden is looking at reelection next year and needs to focus on domestic elections. Both leaders have a shared ground in terms of the need to prioritize other domestic issues, giving an incentive to try to sit down and stabilize the bilateral relationship so that they can focus on other issues without distraction. 

Biden's handling gained significant domestic approval, with the U.S. not conceding much, gaining cooperation on fentanyl and commitment on Taiwan, satisfying domestic concerns about national interests. For China, it was more of a symbolic significance. Before the San Francisco summit, Republicans were saying Biden was going to sell out national interest. After the summit, no one could say that because the U.S. did not sacrifice much.

Why did China still want a meeting? Well, for one, they wanted to stabilize relations so Xi Jinping could focus on domestic problems. But two, Xi Jinping wanted to demonstrate to domestic audiences that he could manage the relationship with the U.S., reversing or slowing down deterioration of the relations when needed. So I think there's an element of demonstrating Xi Jinping’s great power, work and leadership in this particular case.

Among topics discussed in the summit, the leaders affirmed the need to address the risks of advanced AI systems and improve AI safety through U.S.-China government talks. Why is this significant given recent developments in the digital space?

ChatGPT has shocked everybody. The perception is that AI is going to affect everybody, in all industries across the board. AI is a wild card that no one knows how it will play out. Primarily developed by the private sector, AI lacks comprehensive governance from the government's perspective, leading to challenges in managing its implications. In the international arena, there are very few rules of engagement in terms of the field of AI. For example, should AI be allowed to control nuclear weapons? Should AI be given the command and control? This type of knowledge and understanding is completely missing from the picture. Thus, while technology is maturing, the management of the technology, especially in the security arena, is nonexistent. That is why both sides have identified AI as a key area that prompts conversation. While I doubt that we will see the dialogue happening tomorrow morning, there is a consensus that conversations need to happen.

President Biden underscored the universality of human rights and the responsibility of all nations to respect their international human rights commitments, raising concerns regarding PRC human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong.  Following the summit President Biden shared that he still considers Xi a dictator. How was this received by Beijing and how does this reflect the success of the summit?

I don’t think Biden’s comments reflect the success of the summit. Both the U.S. and China understand that they are saying what they have to say, whenever there is a senior level meeting. The U.S. will say that human rights are important with Taiwan, Xinjiang and Hong Kong, (and are) important issues on U.S. radar. There are red lines that cannot be crossed. Both sides have developed the understanding that these are the talking points that need to be made. But making them does not mean that dialogue is meaningless. People are aiming for the deliverables. They understand that there are things that will have to be said,  but they're willing not to let those  statements destroy the opportunity of the deliverables. So in that sense, I don't think that those talking points or President Biden calling Xi Jinping a dictator really fundamentally or critically affect the result of the dialogue.

What  do you see as the impact of the bilateral summit on future diplomacy and military relations between the U.S. and China, since they agreed to bring back the military “hotline” between the two countries? How do you see the relationship between the countries changing in the future years?

I predict three different periods: the near term, which is six to 12 months, the midterm, which is the next three to four years, and then the longer term, which will be more projected into the future. 

In the short term, this meeting will impact the stabilization, creating values for conversations for management of crisis to happen. In the midterm, I expect it to depend on the presidential election of next year. If Biden is reelected, the two countries are looking at basically the regularization of what we're seeing today. The relationship proceeds more stable going forward. But if it's the Trump administration that wins the election, I think the relationship will become much more unstable and contentious. I think Trump will revoke some of the understandings the Chinese have had with the Biden administration. And I think the Trump administration will destabilize current bilateral relationships.

In the long run, beyond the next presidency, there are fundamental conflicts of interest between the U.S. and China. These conflicts are very difficult to resolve, because it's essentially about identity. China believes in its rightful place in the international arena and the U.S. also believes it is the leader of the free world. There are fundamental differences and distinct political systems. So in the long run, I do not see the relationship going back to where it was, let's say 10 years ago. But we are looking at a potential long plateau of deterioration of relations gradually, where two sides do their best to manage their conflicts, and to avoid a war. So it will unfortunately be another kind of Cold War.

For the past 40 years, the U.S. and China have built a lot of economic interdependence, such as trade or investment which can't be completely eliminated. But on the other hand, I think that through derisking or decoupling, socioeconomic ties are going to decrease. In the long run, if we can manage this relationship to make sure that no war breaks out, I will consider ourselves really lucky.

Caroline Kim '24Student Journalist

Office of the President of the United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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