Reestablishing communication between militaries of the two superpowers will be high on President Joe Biden’s agenda Wednesday during a highly anticipated meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in the San Francisco Bay area, a senior administration official says.
The leaders will be meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit that the U.S. is hosting.
It’s a positive sign for the rocky U.S.-China relationship and follows a wave of increased engagement between American and Chinese officials. The administration already has sent several high-ranking officials to Beijing this year, including Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.
Biden is “determined to take the necessary steps” to reestablish military communication channels with Beijing, said the senior administration official, who spoke to reporters Thursday evening on the condition of anonymity. The administration believes the step will inject more stability into the relationship and lower the risk of a military miscalculation.
China suspended military communication last year to protest then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August visit to Taiwan. Included in the suspension were the Defense Policy Coordination Talks, intended to maintain effective communication channels and reduce risks, and the Maritime Military Communications Agreement, which enables ship and aircraft operators to communicate regularly.
Blinken was unable to reestablish communication channels during his visit to Beijing in June. “The Chinese have been reluctant. And so, the president is going to press assertively next week,” the senior administration official said.
Joint Chiefs Chairman General Charles Q. Brown Jr. told reporters Friday that he had sent a letter to his Chinese counterpart, General Liu Zhenli, underscoring the U.S. request. Brown said he was “hopeful.”
“It's reasonable to expect that there's going to be some movement toward the resumption of some level of important dialogue,” Michael D. Swaine, a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington think tank. “But exactly to what extent and how enduring it's going to be, I think remains to be seen,” he told VOA.
Restarting the talks does not imply there will be any substantive breakthroughs, warned Zack Cooper, a senior fellow focusing on U.S. strategy in Asia at the American Enterprise Institute, a policy research group in Washington.
“Beijing continues to believe that crisis management mechanisms generally favor the United States, by allowing Washington to operate near China’s coast with less risk of escalation,” he told VOA. “So, although I expect some of these dialogues to restart, I would not assume that they will be particularly productive.”
The Biden-Xi meeting comes just months before Taiwan’s presidential election in January, and Washington wants Beijing not to meddle in the campaign. China considers the self-governing island its wayward province.
“Any actions or interference in the election would raise extremely strong concerns from our side,” said a second senior administration official in the same briefing.
Such calls are likely to go unheeded. “I doubt that Beijing will have any comments regarding a purported U.S. request not to interfere in Taiwan elections,” Bonnie Glaser told VOA. Glaser is the managing director of the Indo-Pacific Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a public policy research group.
Beijing’s preferred candidate is former New Taipei City Mayor Hou Yu-ih, candidate of the Kuomintang opposition party. Hou has been campaigning on the message “Vote for the Kuomintang, and there will be no war on both sides of the Taiwan Strait."
But polls show that Vice President William Lai, who represents the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party and favors a tougher approach to Beijing, is in the lead. Experts predict a Lai win would lead to a much more confrontational China.
In video remarks to a forum in Hong Kong on Thursday, China’s ambassador to the United States, Xie Feng, said China wanted reassurances that “the U.S. does not seek to change China’s system, does not seek a new Cold War, does not support Taiwan independence and has no intention to seek decoupling from China.”
Understanding between the U.S. and China on Taiwan is key, said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank.
“The biggest issue is the stabilization of bilateral relations,” she told VOA. “Given the upcoming Taiwan elections, it is particularly important for them to have some consensus to prepare for the upcoming turmoil.”
Washington does not take a position on Taiwan’s sovereignty but opposes unilateral changes to the status quo from either side — something that Biden will reaffirm to Xi. The president will “ensure that we're clear we are not supportive of Taiwan independence,” the second official said.
The conversation is expected to cover a broad range of irritants in the bilateral relationship, as well as global problems such as climate change, artificial intelligence and the scourge of fentanyl.
The leaders will also share views on regional conflicts, including North Korea’s weapons program, the war in Ukraine and the conflict in Gaza, the officials said.
The president will convey to Xi that it is essential for Iran not to widen the war in Gaza and spread violence in the Middle East. “If Iran undertakes provocative actions anywhere,” the senior administration official said, “the United States is prepared to respond and respond promptly.”
Beijing has growing clout in the region after it brokered a deal to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March. So far, China has carefully navigated the conflict between Israel and Hamas, stopping short of explicitly taking sides, while calling for a cease-fire and a two-state solution.
VOA’s Paris Huang contributed to this report.