Why Biden’s Engagement with China on Key Issues is JustifiedNovember 18, 2023
President Biden’s summit with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping this week did not yield many big-ticket breakthroughs, but that doesn’t make the meeting unimportant. In fact, consistent interchange with our global rival is a crucial element of our collective security and prosperity. While the reopening of military lines of communication was the most-discussed outcome of the talks, there were positive developments in other areas. The specter of AI remains a little too indistinct for most of the public to understand the need to have international agreements on its use and restrictions, but make no mistake that it could well be as much of an existential question as the prospect of a military escalation, not least because AI is getting tangled up in military applications as well. Running the technology for everyday consumer uses is, as many companies are now finding out, enormously expensive with dubious actual returns (much like many of Silicon Valley’s supposed innovations over the last couple decades). Yet it’s a very different matter for AI systems to fail to, for example, accurately relay information for a term paper versus misread innocuous signals as an oncoming nuclear attack. Controls for these types of applications must be established firmly and by international cooperation before such consequential situations arise. Fentanyl might not similarly keep national security and foreign policy experts up at night, but it certainly keeps up public health officials and families around the country, who have watched as the synthetic opioid has rampaged through the domestic U.S. drug market, not only replacing more expensive or complex to produce opiates like heroin and prescription pills, but contaminating the broader drug supply. Fentanyl’s reach has fed into a spiraling overdose crisis that now regularly kills more Americans than vehicular crashes or guns. It’s not enough to just target supply; we must focus on prevention, decreasing demand, increasing treatment and addressing the underlying issues that drive people to addiction. Yet supply can’t be ignored and it’s clear that a significant chunk of the precursor chemicals used to synthesize the cheap opioid are originating in China before finished poison eventually makes its way to the United States. While Xi made only general commitments, it’s good for this issue to continue to be raised as a significant one, and the White House should keep making it clear that China must crack down on its precursor manufacturers, albeit in a way that is in compliance with norms and doesn’t expand the country’s already significant police state. Some GOP legislators and commentators have jumped immediately to criticize the president for holding this summit at all, claiming that so much as speaking on equal terms with Xi is some kind of capitulation, and the U.S. should presumably just let the planes and the ships do the talking. This is, to be blunt, a dangerous and idiotic stance, and Biden would do well to ignore the rabble-rousing and focus on continuing to establish open communication and common goals, including on the all-important issue of contending with climate change. If the public demands to know what it’s getting out of this, he should be plain-spoken about the risks of leaving shunning dialogue and diplomacy: more overdose deaths, looming war, out-of-control AI and climate cataclysm.