By many accounts, orchestrating the recent meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the APEC summit in mid-November was no easy affair. Before it happened, there was considerable uncertainty about whether a meeting would occur and what course it might take.
Yet it was clear to observers that both sides needed this summit. As the world’s leading major powers, the United States and China understand the importance of working out a modus vivendi in order to stabilize the relationship and avoid escalating tensions. A modus vivendi, however, will not be possible without closing the “narrative gap” that exists between them.
Why Narrative Gaps Matter
States regularly tell stories about themselves and how the world works. For instance, during the Cold War, the United States portrayed itself as the leader of the “free world” in the fight against communism, whereas the Soviet Union told the story of socialist nations banding together to resist capitalist encroachment. While these strategic narratives may operate on multiple levels – systemic, national, and issue-specific – they share the same goal: to provide states with a coherent and persuasive vision to mobilize domestic and international support.
Significant narrative gaps emerge when the perspectives and interpretations that each country propagates about their intentions, actions, and their bilateral state of affairs differ markedly from one another. The current Russo-Ukrainian conflict is a prime example. Russia frames its decision to use military force as a necessary defense of Russian speakers and a response to NATO’s threatening expansion, whereas Ukraine and its Western allies categorize Russia’s actions as unprovoked aggression and NATO membership as a vital component of European security. These diametrically opposing stories reflect a profound narrative gap, with each party challenging the entire legitimacy of the other’s account. Without agreeing on the what and the why of the conflict, it is unlikely that both sides could reach a mutually acceptable settlement.
Because countries tend to have different collective memories of the past, political ideologies, and therefore strategic interests, narrative gaps are relatively common. However, when these gaps widen significantly, especially between major powers, they can escalate beyond mere differences in perspective to become sources of deep-seated misunderstanding and conflict.
The same logic applies to China-U.S. relations. The past decade has seen a precipitous decline in what is often dubbed “the most important bilateral relationship in the world.” As the United States and China vie for strategic dominance, their strategic narratives also diverge. Mainstream U.S. narrative since the early 2010s began to frame China’s rise as a grave challenge not only to American supremacy but also to the global norms and values that underpin the post-1945 order. Thus, the U.S. has consistently emphasized concerns over human rights issues, intellectual property theft, and regional aggression.
In contrast, China has portrayed itself as a re-emerging power rightfully reclaiming its place on the global stage, while accusing the United States of attempting to contain its legitimate development rights and meddling in its internal affairs. This clash of narratives, each with its own version of reality, complicates diplomatic engagements, making the task of finding common ground for a stable and constructive relationship more challenging. Without reconciling these wide narrative gaps, especially on issues like trade practices, tech rivalry, and regional security, the friction between the two major powers would likely intensify in the coming years.
The Narrative Gap in California: Post-Summit Analysis
The official accounts from the Biden-Xi summit show that a significant narrative gap still exists between the two countries, which is reflected through how they frame the meeting’s context and the discussed issues.
The Chinese narrative, as detailed by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, puts forth a binary choice between solidarity with cooperation or rivalry with confrontation. Xi highlighted that major country competition is not a remedy for world issues and warned of the dire consequences of conflict and confrontation. He articulated a vision of Chinese modernization that rejects notions of colonization, plundering, or hegemonic ambitions, and called for mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and mutually beneficial cooperation.
In contrast, the White House’s readout underscored Biden’s focus on the competitive aspect of the China-U.S. relationship. Biden committed to bolstering American strengths and fostering alliances, emphasizing the imperative for both nations to manage their rivalry judiciously to preclude conflict, confrontation, or a descent into a new Cold War. The U.S. brief also elaborated on discussions surrounding global challenges, including the situation in the Indo-Pacific, Ukraine, and human rights, with Biden reaffirming the U.S. stance on these subjects.
While China’s account is steeped in the rhetoric of cooperative partnership and the rejection of a zero-sum game, the U.S. narrative is centered on strategic competition, the fortification of alliances, and concerns around human rights and fair trade practices. Despite these differences, there are convergence on some substantial issues. For instance, both leaders noted positive strides on issues such as the fight against illicit drug production and trafficking, re-establishing high-level military talks, managing the risks associated with AI, and intensifying efforts to combat climate change. They also concurred on the significance of people-to-people exchanges and consented to sustain high-level diplomatic engagements across various domains.
The summit symbolized a proactive endeavor by both nations to bridge the significant narrative gap, with each head of state recognizing the imperative to navigate their rivalry with caution and to sustain open lines of dialogue. This engagement suggests a mutual commitment to developing a set of shared principles that would govern their competitive interactions and establishing a common ground for collaboration on critical global issues.
Bridging the Narrative Gap: Next Steps
To mend the narrative gap, the United States and China could initiate a series of strategic steps, beginning with collaborative engagement in sectors of in areas of “high stakes, high mutual interest,” such as AI regulation. Given the critical role AI plays in both nations’ future, cooperative regulation efforts could serve as a foundation for trust-building.
In addition, concerted action in addressing transnational challenges, such as climate change and global health crises, presents an opportunity to synchronize their narratives. By jointly and gradually revitalizing traditional multilateral platforms such as the United Nations, both countries can showcase a united front, softening adversarial perceptions and crafting a narrative of collaborative leadership. This confluence of efforts would not only redefine their bilateral dynamic but also strengthen the global order.
Establishing a set of fundamental principles for managing competition – such as transparency, respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states, and adherence to principles of international law – could lay the groundwork for a modus vivendi. This approach would minimize the narrative gap, making competition safer and more predictable, and enhance the legitimacy of both nations as leading global powers, as echoed by Xi’s assertion that the world is vast enough to accommodate the growth and aspirations of both China and the United States.
Fostering a common collective memory could go a long way toward bridging the narrative gap. In this respect, investing in people-to-people ties may prove invaluable, as they lay the foundation for mutual understanding and appreciation of each nation’s history and culture. Revitalizing track II diplomacy – informal channels of communication such as dialogues and symposia – would be essential for candid exchanges on matters of the past, present, and future. These discussions allow for an in-depth exploration of each country’s worldview, encouraging empathy and direct engagement with the other’s concerns. Such mechanisms are crucial in dispelling misperceptions and paving the way for narratives that reflect shared visions and respect.
Ultimately, the collaborative endeavors that underscore common human experiences and values hold the most promise. Such projects have the power to echo beyond national boundaries, forging a collective narrative for all mankind. These initiatives are designed not only to inform but also to forge personal connections on all levels, nurturing a shared sense of purpose and collective duty among individuals from both nations.
Smaller nations will always watch closely every China-U.S. engagement with a mix of apprehension and hope, knowing that a superpower duopoly and unchecked rivalry could be equally disastrous. Yet a delicate balance is possible. By carefully recalibrating their relationship and bridging the narrative gap, both sides would not only defuse tensions but also inspire a more harmonious international milieu. In this evolving narrative, the United States and China could demonstrate that even the mightiest powers can move beyond discord, championing collective progress and public goods that benefit all, large and small states alike.