SYDNEY — When Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden sat down and agreed to discuss the implications of Artificial Intelligence and the resumption of military to military discussions that is pretty much all they agreed to: the start of discussions.
But that’s still a major win for those hoping to avoid conflict between the two global powers, according to a top National Security Council official who briefed regional reporters.
After ticking off the many areas where the two sides disagreed but agreed to talk about — the PRC’s “dangerous and unlawful actions” in the South and East China Seas, its support for “Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine,” North Korea’s “illicit ballistic and nuclear programs,” the PRC’s “human rights abuses” in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet — the president’s NSC expert on China and Taiwan, Sarah Beran, noted the great importance of the simple fact that the two leaders met and talked.
“Now, obviously, there are many areas where we disagree, [but] we find this direct leader to leader diplomacy is critical for maintaining channels of communication and responsibly managing competition. There are also areas where we have overlapping interests and we worked hard for this summit to ensure that we had a few key deliverables to announce,” she said Thursday evening. Perhaps the most important in defense terms was the agreement by both Xi and Biden to resume military to military communications, something Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has repeatedly stressed and pressed the Chinese to resume.
“These types of channels of communication are absolutely critical for reducing the risk of a military accident that could spark a broader conflict. This is a critical part of managing competition and again, ensuring we don’t veer into conflict,” Beran said.
But she conceded that, so far, both sides have basically only agreed to begin talking about what to do and how to do it. Actual communications are not imminent — and there is one potentially big obstacle to getting them back on track.
“Look, I think the leaders, we needed a signal from the very top in turning the military to military channels of communication back on and that’s what we thought of this summit. So again, this is both at senior levels. Right now, of course, the secretary of defense does not have a counterpart; there is no [Chinese] minister of defense. We’re going to have to probably wait on that one,” Beran said.
She indicated that policy experts, theater commanders and the “operator level” will be involved in those talks, once they resume.
In a chat with reporters traveling with him to Jakarta, Indonesia, Austin on Wednesday said the importance of military to military communications, pointing to US communications with Russia even as its illegal war against Ukraine rages.
“It’s important to have those channels open. Even in — in the height of all the things that have happened with respect to Russia and Ukraine, I’ve had the ability to pick up the phone and talk to the minister of defense of Russia. And I think that’s a critical capability that we have to maintain, to manage crisis going forward. So it’s — the fact that the leaders have agreed to make sure that those channels are open, I think, is a real benefit,” he said.
The other important issue, Artificial Intelligence and its national security implications —potentially to include nuclear command and control — is also just at the starting point now that both China and the United States have agreed to pursue the issue. The leaders discussed artificial intelligence and agreed to launch bilateral talks on risk and safety related to AI.
“The president just very briefly touched on AI as a transformative technology,” Beran said.
One of the most intriguing issues raised during the run-up to the APEC Summit in San Francisco, where Xi and Biden met, is American agreement to provide the Philippines with nuclear technology in a region where nuclear issues are highly sensitive. Daniel Kritenbrink, the State Department’s assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, provided some insight on what’s going on.
“And just when we finish our call here, I’ll be joining [Secretary of State Antony Blinken] meeting with Philippine President Marcos and secretary [of Foreign Affairs Enrique] Manalo for the signing ceremony of the US civil nuclear cooperation agreement — the 123 agreement — which will support the Philippines transition to clean energy,” Kritenbrink told reporters.