A Modus Vivendi Takes Shape Between The U.S. And China

It can only endure if bolstered by proactive cooperation on climate, AI and health.

Joe Biden and Xi Jinping in Woodside, California on Nov. 15. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

This week U.S. President Joe Biden sat down face-to-face in California with Chinese President Xi Jinping to dampen escalating tensions and, in Biden’s words, “ensure that competition does not veer into conflict.” For his part, Xi acknowledged that “turning their back[s] on each other is not an option,” but was explicit about the underlying cause of confrontation as he sees it, saying that it is “unrealistic for one side to remodel the other.”

For China and the U.S. to arrive at this modus vivendi is not so much a sign of warming ties as a recognition of the intractable nature of strategic rivalry that is not going away. While such a formalized arrangement of wary civility is necessary to avert events spiraling out of control, it can be easily undone unless fortified by cooperation on convergent interests that would lighten the shadow of distrust that hangs over the whole relationship.

As a start, the two leaders restored the basic condition of some military-to-military communication to avoid unintended clashes near contested zones in the East and South China Seas. They also agreed to work together to crack down on the pipeline of chemical ingredients and their processing for the devastating drug, fentanyl, that is flooding the U.S.

Perhaps the most consequential outcome of the summit was the commitment to pursue discussions on the dangers of AI, including concerns about autonomous weapons that would fall outside the loop of human decision-making, particularly with respect to nuclear command and control. Arguably, an agreement on this front would be of greater import than the actual number of warheads each side possesses, which remains a contentious issue.

Such an agreement could also be a precursor to further guardrails down the road for both tech superpowers that would shut down any path toward the recursive self-improvement and autonomy of AI that gives it the misaligned capacity to set its own goals and self-replicate beyond human authority.

Outside the summit, the other significant advance this week was a proactive agreement reached by the top climate officials of both countries, John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua, “to triple renewable energy capacity globally by 2030 … so as to accelerate the substitution for coal, oil and gas generation.” The common aim is “meaningful absolute power sector emission reduction” within the next decade.

Earlier this month on a visit to Beijing, California Governor Gavin Newsom remarked that, when it comes to climate issues, “divorce is not an option” for the U.S. and China, the largest greenhouse gas emitters on the planet. The new agreements may not be a marriage, but they do mark an awareness by both nations that they are live-in roommates under the one roof of the Earth’s biosphere.

One can imagine other vital areas of cooperation in the future. For example, Patrick Soon-Shiong, the innovative bio-scientist and owner of the Los Angeles Times, sees great promise if there were a joint effort to eradicate cancer through joining the basic research prowess and abundant capital resources of both nations to exploit the vast genetic and medical data sets of their large populations.

In each of these cases, the bonds being created arise out of the voluntary mobilization of cooperation by both nations to address common challenges neither can effectively meet alone. Only what emerges organically in response to pressing circumstances at hand can be integral to any enduring reset of relations in a political landscape otherwise stifled by incommensurate values.

When rivalry is not total but punctuated by the bonds of cooperation, the self-reinforcing dynamics of hostility are disrupted. A modus vivendi that creates the space for this new sensibility to take hold is the best chance of keeping the peace in the tumultuous times ahead. Events this week are a propitious beginning.