A new architecture of engagement, based on a Sino-American secretariat, is urgently needed.
writer, a senior fellow at the Yale Law School and former chair of Morgan
Stanley Asia, is author of ‘Accidental Conflict: America, China, and the Clash
of False Narratives’
Treasury secretary Janet Yellen’s recent trip to Beijing was the economic
policymaker’s carbon copy of Antony Blinken’s earlier diplomatic mission —
plenty of talk but no meaningful conflict resolution. The same can be expected
from climate envoy John Kerry’s trip to China. Both sides are aiming low, more
intent on re-establishing connections than rethinking a deeply troubled
problem is not with the messengers. The diplomats are just following orders, consistent
with the leader-to-leader commitment Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping made
at the November 2022 G20 meeting in Bali to put “a floor” on the relationship.
Yes, a floor is an improvement from a downward spiral, but it runs the very
real risk of setting the stage for a new phase of conflict escalation.
efforts are a replay of an old, tired formula of US-China engagement. This
featured periodic summits between 2006 and 2017, notably the twice yearly
Strategic Economic Dialogues of the George W Bush administration followed by
the broader annual Strategic and Economic Dialogues of the Obama era.
were grand and glorious exercises in event planning, but they failed to prevent
the trade war, the tech war and the early skirmishes of a new cold war. Now it seems that both Yellen and Blinken
would like nothing better than to return to this failed approach.
is the case with China. Li Qiang, the new Chinese premier, borrowed an
elliptical page from one of his predecessors, Wen Jiabao, and spoke wistfully
after meeting Yellen of seeing “rainbows” after a round of “wind and rain”.
This deeply troubled relationship needs far more than just a “floor” to prevent
a new round of conflict escalation. That is the minimum that Biden and Xi
expect from each other as responsible stewards of a fragile world. But without
reinforcement, it could turn out to be surprisingly shaky.
great February balloon fiasco is an example of how quickly matters can veer out
of control in the face of the slightest glitch. This precarious state of
affairs is an unavoidable consequence of an important shift in the priorities
of US-China relationship management — a longstanding emphasis on economics and
trade has now been supplanted by concerns over defence and security.
economics and trade, in which relationship conflicts are evaluated through the
lens of hard data, security concerns are judged more on the basis of
unsubstantiated presumptions of adversarial behaviour.
dual use of advanced technologies, blurring the distinction between commercial
and military purposes, is a case in point. The US assumes that China will
weaponise artificial intelligence just as it takes for granted that Huawei
poses a backdoor threat to 5G infrastructure or TikTok will use proprietary
data gathered from young US users for nefarious purposes.
operates under the same paranoid mindset, presuming that Washington’s trade and
technology sanctions are aimed at “all-around containment, encirclement and
suppression”, to quote Xi’s words at this year’s Chinese People’s Political
Consultative Conference. With both nations operating on the basis of
presumption without evidence, the dangers of further escalation, especially in
the face of looming risks for tech investment and strategic materials exports,
cannot be ignored.
engagement is ill equipped to deal with these risks. In the end, that rests on
leader-to-leader chemistry, which is always vulnerable to the tenuous interplay
between domestic politics and the need for fragile human egos to save face.
US-China conflict has outlived that approach.
For this reason, I am in favour of the establishment of a US-China
secretariat as the centrepiece of a new architecture of Sino-American
engagement — a permanent organisation, staffed by equal complements of US and
Chinese professionals, located in a neutral jurisdiction with a broad remit for
policy development, troubleshooting and conflict resolution. Its focus would be
on a forward-looking, full-time approach to relationship management and dispute
secretariat would shift the relationship framework away from the
personalisation of endless diplomacy towards a more resilient
institutionalisation of collaborative problem solving.
the past, diplomats are now celebrating the thaw after a big freeze. While, for
the time being, the escalation of tensions is on a tenuous hold, it is urgent
that both superpowers seize the moment and push for an entirely new approach to
conflict resolution — before it is too late.