'Anyway, we made progress.'
Tech and climate in yesterday's Biden-Xi meeting
As the press was being herded out of US President Joe Biden’s press conference yesterday following his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, a reporter asked Biden whether he would “still refer to President Xi as a ‘dictator,’” a word he had used last year when discussing Xi’s likely displeasure if it turned out he had been caught unaware by the infamous balloon incident.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, look, he is. I mean, he’s a dictator in the sense that he — he is a guy who runs a country that — it’s a communist country that is based on a form of government totally different than ours.
Anyway, we made progress.
And despite any umbrage taken, indeed they did. Xi’s posture later at a dinner for US business leaders leaned positive. According to The New York Times, Steve Orlins, president of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, one of the dinner’s co-hosts “said the Chinese had prepared three versions of a speech Mr. Xi could deliver that night. After Wednesday’s events with Mr. Biden, Mr. Xi had picked the friendliest one.” And atmospherics aside, there was certainly some limited progress.
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Most prominently, the summit represented another symbolic reset to bilateral diplomacy a year and a day after the pair’s meeting in Bali, Indonesia. That meeting had promised modest new space for diplomacy, only to have much of it deflated by balloongate. Still, it was no certainty that Xi would make the trip, and the successful preparation and execution of the discussion alone showed the US and Chinese governments are more ready to work through concrete problems than when Biden took office.
The headline outcomes included cooperation on controlling the supply of fentanyl precursors and restarting military-to-military contacts.
On technology and climate issues, there were several less prominent but potentially significant outcomes, as well as some rumored outcomes that did not materialize. Here are some of the key statements in those areas. (I am not seeking to cover the full range of what has been reported or all aspects of bilateral ties.)
On AI issues, there were two rumored outcomes, one of which came to pass while another was not addressed, at least publicly.
Government-to-government talks on AI “safety.”
From the US readout:
The leaders affirmed the need to address the risks of advanced AI systems and improve AI safety through U.S.-China government talks.
Biden, from the press conference:
[W]e’re going to get our experts together to discuss risk and safety issues associated with artificial intelligence.
The two leaders agreed to advance and strengthen China-US dialogue and cooperation in various areas, including: establishing a dialogue between governments on artificial intelligence…
From the Ministry of Foreign Affairs:
Third, jointly advance mutually beneficial cooperation. China and the United States have a wide range of common interests in many areas, including traditional areas such as trade and agriculture, as well as novel areas such as climate change and artificial intelligence. In the present context, the two countries’ common interests have not contracted but rather expanded. Both sides need to make full use of restored mechanisms in diplomacy, economics, investment, commerce, agriculture, etc., and undertake cooperation in areas such as drug control, law enforcement, artificial intelligence, and science and technology.
Semafor had reported the likely establishment of a bilateral AI channel.
A rumored agreement not to use AI in nuclear weapons systems did not materialize.
The South China Morning Post on Nov. 11 had reported: “Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping are poised to pledge a ban on the use of artificial intelligence in autonomous weaponry, such as drones, and in the control and deployment of nuclear warheads, two sources familiar with the matter confirmed to the Post.”
There are several reasons this was unlikely as reported. For one, banning all “artificial intelligence” from weaponry or air platforms such as drones would render them inoperable. There is a great deal of automation already at work in keeping aircraft aloft and on course, discerning objects in targeting systems or other surveillance, and in guiding advanced munitions. Any deal would need to be a lot more specific. I thought a commitment to keep human control of nuclear weapons might make sense as a more narrow prohibition on allowing machines to autonomously launch strikes, and I believe this is already where the two countries stand on the topic, but in any event no such announcement was made.
The resumption of military-to-military talks could be a bright spot in working toward understandings about where automation in weapons systems poses a risk to strategic stability. This could also come up in the bilateral discussions discussed above.
Tech trade and supply chains.
It’s worth noting a bit of what was not addressed in any significant way: lingering tariffs and export controls in tech fields. The Chinese side did have some language on the futility of trying to control Chinese tech development:
From the Ministry of Foreign Affairs:
Xi Jinping pointed out that the United States continuously takes measures against China in the areas of export control, investment reviews, and unilateral sanctions, seriously harming China’s legitimate interests. China’s development is innovation-driven, and to suppress Chinese science and technology is to contain China’s high-quality development and deprive the Chinese people of their right to development. China’s development and growth have an internal logic and cannot be stopped by external forces. It is hoped that the United States will take Chinese concerns seriously, take action, remove unilateral sanctions, and provide a fair, just, and non-discriminatory environment for Chinese businesses.
The US side, for its part, essentially did not address these issues. A reporter asked US “senior administration officials” in a pre-trip briefing whether the series of sanctions initiated by the Trump administration under Section 301 of the Trade Act might be on the table. An official basically said they’re not getting into details like that:
On your question regarding 301, look, I think in general on the leader-level engagements, we try to pull those up and keep them a bit broader strategic issues.
I certainly expect the — the question of economic and trade relationship to be on the agenda. The President at every meeting and engagement with President Xi has brought up the importance of a level playing field for American companies. And, of course, that’s an integral part of the 301.
But I don’t anticipate that we’ll get into the details of that. We’ll keep it a broader strategic view.
The topic of semiconductor controls, which the administration has been tightening after introducing unprecedented measures to slow Chinese progress in the most data-intensive fields last year, was no doubt top of mind for many but did not figure into the publicized discussion.
The two countries’ climate envoys met earlier this month at Sunnylands, the southern California site of a historic Obama-Xi meeting a decade ago. The results of their meeting were released in a US-China joint statement the day before the leaders’ meeting. From the statement:
The United States and China decide to operationalize the Working Group on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s, to engage in dialogue and cooperation to accelerate concrete climate actions in the 2020s. The Working Group will focus on the areas of cooperation that have been identified in the Joint Statement and the Joint Declaration, including on energy transition, methane, circular economy and resource efficiency, low-carbon and sustainable provinces/states & cities, and deforestation, as well as any agreed topics. … The United States and China will, on the road to COP 28 and beyond, accelerate, inter alia, the following concrete actions, including practical and tangible collaborative programs and projects under the Working Group.
This group formalized ongoing dialogue on climate issues, and the Sunnylands statement also announced the restart of the U.S.-China Energy Efficiency Forum and “bilateral dialogues on energy policies and strategies.”
The statement also announced the two countries would “hold a high-level event on subnational climate action in the first half of 2024.” This subnational note is significant especially in California, where our former Governor Jerry Brown has long taken an interest in California-China and US-China cooperation in climate change mitigation and adaptation.
Current Governor Gavin Newsom met with Xi on a trip to China last month and published a “Declaration of Enhanced Subnational Climate Action and Cooperation Between the State of California and the People’s Republic of China.” Newsom also signed an MOU between California and China’s National Development and Reform Commission on low-carbon development and the green transition.
Anyway, we made progress.
About Here It Comes
Here it Comes is written by me, Graham Webster, a research scholar and editor-in-chief of the DigiChina Project at the Stanford Program on Geopolitics, Technology, and Governance. It is the successor to my earlier newsletter efforts U.S.–China Week and Transpacifica. Here It Comes is an exploration of the onslaught of interactions between US-China relations, technology in China, and climate change. The opinions expressed here are my own, and I reserve the right to change my mind.