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White House Hopes Biden-Xi Meeting Leads to More Talks With China

U.S. President Joe Biden, right, and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands before a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit meeting, in Bali, Indonesia, Nov. 14, 2022.
U.S. President Joe Biden, right, and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands before a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit meeting, in Bali, Indonesia, Nov. 14, 2022.

When U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet Wednesday in California, U.S. officials do not expect any major breakthroughs that could dramatically improve the relationship.

Instead, White House officials say one of their main summit goals is simply to ensure that both sides continue talking, to reduce the chances that U.S.-China tensions spiral into conflict.

“We’re not talking about a long list of outcomes or deliverables,” a senior Biden administration official conceded during a telephone briefing to preview the Biden-Xi meeting.

“The goals here really are about managing the competition, preventing the downside risk of conflict, and ensuring channels of communication are open,” the official added.

US Officials Set Modest Goals for Biden-Xi Meeting
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The meeting, which will occur on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit, will be the first in-person interaction between the two men in about a year. It will be Xi’s first U.S. visit in six years.

During that time, relations have sunk to perhaps their lowest point since the United States and China established diplomatic ties in 1979.

The two sides not only disagree over issues including Taiwan, trade, human rights, and global governance – U.S. and Chinese military planes and ships now regularly have close and dangerous encounters in the East and South China Sea

The Pentagon has repeatedly warned that such encounters could turn deadly. But until recently, U.S. officials have had fewer and fewer venues to raise such complaints, as Beijing closed many of the communications channels to protest U.S. actions.

Beijing’s change in tone

In the months leading up to the Biden-Xi meeting, China’s opposition to dialogue began to soften.

U.S. and Chinese officials now have held preliminary talks on a wide range of issues, including arms control, macroeconomics, and climate change.

In some instances, Xi surprised visiting U.S. delegations with a personal reception that many observers saw as notably warm.

"I have said many times, including to several presidents, we have 1,000 reasons to improve China-U.S. relations, but not one reason to ruin them," Xi told a visiting group of U.S. senators in Beijing.

Analysts say Xi’s change in tone can be attributed to domestic factors, such as slower than expected post-Covid economic growth and China's struggle to attract foreign investment amid U.S. trade restrictions.

By engaging with Washington, Xi may be trying to demonstrate to his domestic audience and international partners that he remains in control of China’s most important bilateral relationship, says Amanda Hsiao, a senior China analyst at the Crisis Group.

Beijing was also likely caught off guard “by just how hostile of an external environment that it’s facing now,” said Hsiao. She cites the international backlash to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which resulted in a “narrative of democracies versus authoritarian countries.”

“That created…a rallying effect for Washington and its allies and partners to form a bit of an anti-China coalition,” Hsiao added, citing expanded U.S. alliances with South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines.

Small steps

Though few expect the Biden-Xi meeting to transform the relationship, officials and analysts point to several areas of progress that could soon be announced.

Last week, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry said the United States and China – the world’s two biggest greenhouse gas emitters – have reached “understandings and agreements” that could lead to a more successful United Nations climate change conference later this month in Dubai. Details, Kerry said, would be released soon.

Biden may push Xi to take steps to reduce the flow of chemicals used to make fentanyl, a dangerous narcotic that is responsible for tens of thousands of drug overdoses in the United States each year.

The fentanyl issue represents a possible area where the two sides “can work immediately to enhance mutual trust and cooperation,” said Zichen Wang, a research fellow at the Beijing-based Center for China and Globalization research organization.

“According to press reports, China has a positive attitude towards the fentanyl issue and there is room to establish a regular communication and control mechanism with the U.S. on the matter,” Wang added.

China ended all talks over the fentanyl issue last year, after former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in a show of support for the self-ruled island claimed by Beijing.

At the time, China also halted military dialogue with the United States – a matter of particular concern for Biden officials.

According to a White House official, Biden will press Xi “assertively” on Wednesday to restore more military-to-military communications.

However, Nathaniel Sher, a senior research analyst at Carnegie China, warns that one meeting is unlikely to create a durable floor under the U.S.-China relationship, especially ahead of elections in the United States and Taiwan.

“One meeting, however, can prevent relations from deteriorating further,” he said.