In this tense moment, confrontational narratives between the United States and China have drowned out the competitive and cooperative components of the relationship, increasing the risks, escalating frictions and undermining global cooperation. The G2o summit in mid-November in Indonesia poses the possibility of confrontations between the West and Russia, forcing the ten non-western governments to take sides that they want to avoid, and washing away the focus on systemic risks which are affecting everyone everywhere.
China and the US: two different approaches
What to do? Let’s imagine a world in which humanity is able to see opportunity in crisis moments and embrace contradictions rather than see binary choices between good and evil, hope and despair.
Henry Wang, head the Centre for China and Globalization think tank in Beijing, begins an article in SCMP with a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time”. This echoes the observation of Kings College London China scholar, Kerry Brown, in his book on China’s Dream, which among other things highlights the degree to which “embracing contradictions” is a strong feature of Chinese political culture.
It seems that China is more adept at “embracing contradictions” than the West. Reuters reported on October 26 that “President Xi Jinping said China is willing to work with the United States to find ways to get along to the benefit of both” in a statement to the National Committee on US-China Relations. At the same time, after Lloyd Austin, US Defense Secretary, suggested reinstating communications links between the US and China military leaderships that had been dropped by China in the wake of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. The spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry responded with “warrior diplomacy” harsh rebukes.
So, what would happen if we imagined a world of mixed messages, complexity, and contradiction in which diverse messages, meanings and movements exist side-by-side with each other, and we take advantage of that mix to make bold moves that can reduce tensions and make progress. What could happen in Bali to facilitate upside outcomes over downside dangers?
A bilateral agenda to be discussed in Bali
One upside move would be for Joe Biden and Xi Jinping to agree beforehand to meet in Bali to discuss a variety of issues.
***Could they possibly agree to try to reduce the current risks of nuclear accidents and actions which would break the guardrails established after the second world war? There is evidence from an online article by former PLA official Zhou Bo in the Financial Times suggesting that “China can use its leverage to prevent nuclear war”.
***In addition, it might be possible for China and the US and the EU to gain global agreement in Bali on enforcing minimum standards for the safety and security of nuclear plants world-wide but with a focus on the two large plants in Ukraine currently occupied by Russia. Perhaps the IAEA in Vienna could help draft a set of guidelines for the G20 to agree to in Bali to propose for United Nations approval.
***Could the US and China agree to reiterate the need for compliance with basic minimum standards for the conduct of war protecting civilians and combatants, agreed to by all parties in the Geneva Protocols and IRC guidelines decades ago?
***Could Xi Jinping and Joe Biden agree to reciprocate on reduction of tariffs, as Fred Bergsten has argued in his new book? And jointly, agree to strengthen the WTO?
***Could Joe Biden and Xi Jinping agree to jointly support a major increase in resources for the World Bank to be deployed toward addressing systemic global challenges, as proposed by Larry Summers and also by Janet Yellen and the Center for Global Development?
***Could Xi Jinping and Joe Biden agree that the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 agreed to by 194 countries in 2015 are a compelling framework for addressing systemic challenges in advanced, emerging and developing countries, and that because that is so, agree to put real teeth into monitoring and evaluating progress toward the SDGs for 2030 and trying to use them as leverage for achieving deep transformational changes to achieve systemic sustainability?
***Related to the SDGs, could Joe Biden and Xi Jinping (and the EU) agree to coordinate infrastructure investment globally, by bringing together the workstreams of each continent's efforts and by strengthening coordination among multilateral development banks and other international financial institutions across the global system in behalf of better outcomes for people everywhere?
***Could Xi Jinping and Joe Biden agree to reinstate the eight "suspended" and "extinguished" official working groups on key issues that were canceled in the aftermath of the visit of Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan?? Some of those are worthy and low profile, and hence feasible to resuscitate. And at least one of them is absolutely crucial, namely the communications working group between military commands in the two countries, which Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is eager to re-establish.
G20 Summit: a potential turning point?
The bottom line is: could China, the US and the West be willing to open the door to continuous and more intense dialogues and engagement on global systemic challenges, alongside of ongoing geopolitical tensions?
The Indonesian G20 is a potential turning point event, in which either bold moves shift the political dynamics and restore global progress on global issues, or in which global tensions prevail, dominating global governance and weakening it at this crucial moment for the world.
Please also read the Statement by China-West Dialogue for G20 Summit in Indonesia.