Are U.S.-China Talks Accomplishing Anything?

Are U.S.-China Talks Accomplishing Anything?

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In the space of one week this month, China and the United States held two bilateral meetings of the kind that have been rare in recent years amid their escalating diplomatic conflict.

The first, on May 8 and 9, was a meeting of the two countries’ new climate envoys in Washington, featuring discussions on the energy transition, greenhouse gases, decarbonization, and a commitment to continue “technical and policy exchanges” on those issues. Another high-level meeting between the two sides on these issues is set to take place in Berkeley, California, next week.

The second meeting took place on May 14 in a more neutral venue—Switzerland—and focused on a far more nascent and uncertain arena for U.S.-China cooperation. Delegations from both governments met in Geneva to start a bilateral conversation on artificial intelligence, aimed at mitigating the global risks from advanced AI systems.

Readouts from both meetings cited as their basis the November 2023 summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in San Francisco, a dialogue seen as a tentative (albeit limited) diplomatic thaw. Despite the animosity that has come to define the U.S.-China relationship for most of the last decade, it represents an effort to keep lines of communication open and find common ground on specific issues. AI and climate, on the face of it, check some important boxes.

“They’re both definitely issues with transnational impacts and therefore issues where the U.S. and China could have shared interests, which as we know is the minority of issues these days,” said Helen Toner, the director of strategy and foundational research grants at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

However, there are a few key differences between the two issues when it comes to the foundation and scope of collaboration. The U.S.-China climate dialogue has been in progress for more than a decade and has been one of the rare bright spots in a deteriorating bilateral relationship. AI, on the other hand, may be a touchier topic because of the centrality of technology to the U.S.-China conflict.

“[China] has made AI development a major national priority and of course is rapidly deploying capabilities across civilian as well as military and national security sectors, in many cases in ways that we believe undermines both U.S. and allied national security,” a senior Biden administration official told reporters ahead of the Geneva talks, adding that any kind of technical or research cooperation was not on the table. “We do think it is worth opening a channel for communication on these issues—in addition to having national security risks, we also believe there are global risks posed by rapid advances in AI that it’s worth the United States and China exchanging views on.”

Both countries seek to develop and dominate the technologies of the future, with AI chief among them, and are also looking to impose their respective values on the rules that govern those technologies.

“I think the real question is whether both sides judge that these talks are productive enough to continue,” Toner said. “I think it was always going to be a pretty tentative first exchange, feeling out how much productive ground there is to cover. … It will be subject to the larger dynamics of the relationship, so either side can decide to can it if something else happens, and they want to have a button to press.”

Unlike the climate talks, readouts of the AI meeting did not mention whether or when the next one would take place. And both sides have significant ulterior motives beyond dialogue.

“At the end of the day, it’s not about the meeting. It’s about advancing our strategic interests,” said Michelle Giuda, a former State Department official who is now the CEO of the Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue University. “The ultimate measure of success is whether we’re able to innovate faster, smarter, and better in AI so the U.S. and all of our trusted allies are the ones that are setting the norms and the standards for its regulation.”

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For China, the optics of the talks may be as important as their substance, according to Lindsay Gorman, a former senior technology advisor in the Biden White House. “China wants to be a player in global governance. It wants to be on equal footing with the U.S. as another pole when it comes to leading the conversation on AI development and regulations,” said Gorman, who now heads the German Marshall Fund’s technology program. And it’s not just Washington, either—Xi’s visit to Europe this month included a joint declaration on AI governance between France and China.

“China benefits from calm seas, including on these AI topics. A public show of diplomacy helps foster that image, and anything they can do to blunt some of these tech actions would definitely be in their interest,” Gorman said.

However, stark reminders of where things really stand have come thick and fast since the meetings took place.

On the same day that his AI envoys met their Chinese counterparts in Geneva, Biden significantly increased import tariffs on a swath of Chinese products, including solar panels and semiconductors, as well as introduced a 100 percent duty on electric vehicles—highlighting that even as they cooperate on the climate crisis, the technology powering the green transition remains fair game. As the senior administration official put it, “Our technology protection policies are not up for negotiation,” even as Washington seeks greater dialogue.

It’s the latest salvo in the ongoing U.S.-China tech competition and a throwback to former U.S. President Donald Trump’s trade war aimed at preserving U.S. national security and protecting U.S. markets from Chinese influence.

“The [Biden] administration is looking at China and seeing this kind of all-hands-on-deck effort to ramp up production and export” by Chinese industries, said Emily Benson, the director of the project on trade and technology at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The administration is taking a very multi-dimensional approach to combating overcapacity, weaponization, and undercutting of U.S. production.”

China followed up with provocations of its own, with Xi hosting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing two days later and pledging to deepen the two countries’ strategic partnership. This week, China conducted “punishment” military drills off the coast of Taiwan just days after the island’s new president, Lai Ching-te, took office.

While the timing of those actions on both sides may have been coincidental, they illustrate the fundamental lack of trust underpinning any meetings between the two sides. “China has a history of dialogue for the sake of dialogue. Will we see any concrete progress on stemming China’s misuse of AI? I’m not holding my breath,” Gorman said. “I think the ultimate message coming out of it is that we’re going to have these conversations but that’s not going to stop the competitive dance. … It’s not dependent on outcomes of diplomatic conversations with an autocratic power.”

And as the United States prepares to elect its next leader in November, one of the biggest questions is how a change of occupant in the White House would impact Washington’s China policies. Hawkishness on China has become a bipartisan issue, though Gorman highlighted a key—and potentially troubling—distinction in the event that Trump wins.

“I don’t think the Washington consensus on China is going away regardless of who’s in the Oval Office,” she said. “The one area where we will see a huge difference between Trump and Biden is in how we deal with our allies and partners, and for that reason a Trump presidency would be a gift to China because already from his first presidency, he was trying to move the United States away from its allies and partners that the Biden administration rightly views as a strategic advantage against autocratic powers.”

For now, however, finding that common ground—however thin—remains important.

“Even in periods of greater hostility, some of the tensest periods of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, there was still great value in making sure that you had open lines of communication. … No one wanted an unintentional nuclear holocaust,” Georgetown’s Toner said. “Should we believe everything China tells us at these talks? No. Should we have the talks? I think yes. We’re not anywhere close to the point where it makes sense to totally cut off diplomatic ties.”