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The Woodside Summit and Sino-American Relations

Updated: Jan 3

The novelty of a major summit between presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping punctuates a period of tension in relations between Beijing and Washington. With discussions ranging from the challenges of AI and drug trafficking to the possibility of deepening bilateral investment, the 15 November meeting in Woodside, California offers an interesting glimpse into the state of the world’s premier geopolitical rivalry and its future.

The following contributions shed light on the summit’s most important elements. Its geopolitical dynamics are analyzed by Antonio Carapella, its economic dimension by Lavinia Catalano, its emphasis on the environment by Anna Lo Presti, and its implications on the fentanyl trade by Alessandro Matrone.


Geopolitical Aspects

The summit came at a tense time for Sino-American relations. Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in 2022 resulted in the end of military-to-military communications between the two countries, while the memory of spy balloons is still fresh in the mind of many Americans. In this context, progress was limited. Although communications between the PLA and the Pentagon were restored, the question of Taiwan and the South China Sea remained largely unresolved, with no change in position from either side. Furthermore, Xi’s position on both the Ukrainian and Middle Eastern conflicts remained substantially unchanged.


Economic Aspects

Over the course of the summit, what struck the most observing Xi Jinping’s behavior was his conciliatory tone, so distant from the “wolf warrior” approach unique to his foreign policy. One reason for this shift is found in domestic affairs: China’s outstanding economic growth is slowing. This year, foreign investments reached a negative level for the first time since the 1990s as Beijing faces the consequences of its pandemic-era policies and political volatility. To court foreign investors, the summit’s banquet with American business leaders underlined his willingness to overcome the differences with the United States, particularly its business community. He was, however, more assertive during the meeting with the American president, where he strongly complained about the stop in the supply of the most advanced computer chips, crucial for the Chinese economy, but which Washington considers a matter of national security.


Environmental Aspects

A primary purpose of the summit was bringing together the world’s two greatest polluters, China and the US, to address the challenge of climate change. Despite substantial ambiguity, progress was reached.  Agreements were reached to collaborate on recycling and resource efficiency research aiming to promote a circular economy. Furthermore, a specialist group on climate change, interrupted by China in 2020, was renewed. Commitments were made to “pursue efforts to triple renewable energy capacity globally by 2030”, and even conducting five joint large-scale carbon capture and storage projects, in particular to reduce the production of methane emissions. 


Fentanyl Aspects

Following a moderately successful agreement between Beijing and Washington in 2019 to control the amount of finished fentanyl shipped from China to the US, the two nations now aim to curb the flow of chemical compounds to make fentanyl, its precursors. With this deal, the US plans to keep tackling the rising and leading cause of overdoses in 2022. The agreement targets the reduction of fentanyl precursor shipments to Latin America, where they are developed by drug cartels and smuggled into the US.

While the agreement can be a viable short-term solution to reduce illegal fentanyl consumption in the US, despite concerns with the credibility of such promises, cartels will likely adapt and seek alternative solutions to diminishing fentanyl stocks. The agreements reached emphasize the importance of international cooperation in finding viable solutions to fentanyl addiction. Nonetheless, addressing the crisis requires broader efforts tackling addiction and overdose prevention which imply sustained collaboration across sectors and countries.

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