Biden and Xi at APEC: A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with a Single Step

November 13, 2023 | 10:00 am
JD Gipson/Unsplash
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

They don’t need to wear flowers in their hair, but US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping should try to leave our hearts with a little hope after they meet in San Francisco this week. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC), which is bringing the two leaders together, was founded on a shared commitment to the values of community, stability and interdependence. A joint reaffirmation of those values could help redirect US and Chinese government behavior towards working together to solve the world’s problems instead of fighting over them.

People everywhere are tired of fear and anxiety. They would prefer to think about a tomorrow that is going to be better than today. Young people, especially, need a vision of a future they can look forward to creating. But that’s not possible if the only things our governments talk about are competition and the need to prepare for war. A brighter future is hard to imagine when our leaders keep suggesting that improving the lives of others can only come at the expense of our own, that sharing new technologies is dangerous, and that trust in the good will of others is foolish, or a risk.

How we perceive the world matters. A large part of what we call politics is creating and propagating perceptions of ourselves, others, the world, and its future. A few positive words from the presidents of the United States and China could help pull the planet out of the demoralizing tailspin that’s ensnared our collective imagination. APEC was founded at a moment when, after the General Secretary of the Soviet Union and the President of the United States let down their guard, a more promising vision of the future became possible and popular. Biden and Xi could do something similar, if not as dramatic, in the city by the bay.

At this unfortunate moment in US-China relations, both leaders would be taking a risk. Politics is also a blood sport, and their domestic adversaries will take advantage. Biden seems more vulnerable and may have a lot more to lose. His most likely opponent in the next US presidential election has sold a good number of American voters on the idea that every foreign gain is an American loss, and that international cooperation and international organizations, like APEC, are for dupes. If he was forced to choose between losing the election or increasing the possibility of a war with China, Biden may see the former as the greater risk to the United States.

Xi sold his own party on the communist cliché that struggle with an oppressive, corrupt, and incompetent capitalist West, led by the United States, is inevitable. He mobilized true believers to seize control of the party, and the country, from his ideologically compromised predecessors and their protégés. Paradoxically, however, autocracy is more congenial to political change if that’s what an autocrat desires. Xi could follow in General Secretary Gorbachev’s footsteps. Sadly, Xi, like Putin, believes Gorbachev was a fool for trusting the United States. Disabusing the Chinese leader of that conviction would require an extraordinary exercise of US political and diplomatic skill.

Both leaders seem to be looking to split the difference. Biden champions competition but wants to set up guardrails that prevent a stumble into war. Xi, perhaps afraid of the same danger, is coming to San Francisco, and preparing the way with conversations between senior officials charged with finding safe common ground. Moreover, both leaders are feeling pressure from the global majority caught in the middle. Many other governments are warning both leaders that the costs of a divided world where nations are forced to choose between China and the United States are intolerably high.

Seeking to avoid a war while continuing to engage in high stakes global economic and diplomatic competition is not a viable path forward. The fact that both leaders are arming their nations to the teeth suggests even they think that balancing act is likely to fail. The world needs more from Biden and Xi; a recognition that cooperation is mutually beneficial, desired, and possible. It needs the two leaders to bury the hatchet and resolve to help each other, and everybody else, create a world where most ordinary people can wake up with good reason to expect that today will be better than yesterday.  

The two aging heads of state can start with a few kind and hopeful words for each other when they meet in a city named after St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology. They can carry that momentum into the next round of international climate negotiations two weeks later. A productive early December at the United Nations Climate Conference would be a welcome holiday gift Biden and Xi could present to a weary world at the end of a worrisome 2023. It’s been a taxing year filled with wars and rumors of wars, accompanied by deadly global temperature increases that presage the far greater dangers to come if the United States and China can’t work together to manage the climate crisis. 

One final truth about politics is that its most successful practitioners live to be remembered. Saving the world has an undeniable appeal to politicians like Biden and Xi. One can imagine they would both like to be remembered for putting the world on a path towards lasting peace and sustainable prosperity. They can take the first step just a few days from now.

About the author

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Gregory Kulacki is a Senior Analyst and the China Project Manager for the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). He is also a Visiting Fellow at the Research Center for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (RECNA) at Nagasaki University. He works on improving cross-cultural communication between the United States of America, China and Japan on nuclear weapons and related security issues. Prior to joining UCS in 2002, Dr. Kulacki was the Director of External Studies at Pitzer College, an Associate Professor of Government at Green Mountain College and the China Director for the Council on International Educational Exchange. Gregory completed his doctorate in government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park.