The White House says President Joe Biden will hold direct, frank discussions with his Chinese counterpart on a range of issues when the leaders meet virtually Monday evening in their first presidential engagement.
Press secretary Jen Psaki joked that although Biden has previously met President Xi Jinping in person — when they were both vice presidents — "he still does not consider him an old friend." But, she said, their history means Biden can speak openly with the leader of the nation he sees as America's top adversary.
"The president feels that he's able to have candid discussions with President Xi, someone with whom he can raise directly areas where we have concern, whether it's security issues, whether it's economic issues, whether it is human rights issues — and he will certainly do that this evening during the call," she said.
"But he will also look for areas where we can work together and where there are areas where there is a cohesion of opportunity moving forward."
A senior administration official told reporters on background Sunday that "this meeting is about our ongoing efforts to responsibly manage the competition, not about agreeing to a specific deliverable or outcome."
When asked, Psaki would not say specifically whether Biden would mention Beijing's decision to test a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August.
That's one of several thorny issues the two leaders will face in this virtual meetup. The U.S. sees China as its strategic competitor, with Beijing seeking to grow its military and economic influence around the world. The two are embroiled in diplomatic, legal, technological and economic disputes that are volatile and prone to escalation. There have been clashes over intellectual property and tariffs as well as regional flashpoints that could spiral into armed conflict, including in the Taiwan Strait and in the South China and East China seas.
Biden is expected to raise human rights issues, including Beijing's use of forced labor in its supply chain.
"We believe that these are differences that we need to address directly and not in some way put to the side as I think China would often like to do," the senior administration official said in response to VOA's question.
The official characterized the meeting as a means to build "commonsense guardrails to avoid miscalculation or misunderstanding" — in other words, to prevent the already tense rivalry from breaking into an all-out war.
"Our two countries are in fundamentally different places with each other than we have been in the past," the official said.
Many observers share the pessimism.
"This not the Sunnylands summit," said Patrick Cronin, the Asia-Pacific security chair at the Hudson Institute, referring to the 2013 meeting between then-President Barack Obama and Xi, at a retreat center in California, that placed the U.S.-China bilateral relationship on more solid footing and paved the way for nuclear diplomacy with North Korea. "The relationship has changed — it's more precarious, it's more tense," Cronin said.
While both sides would like to avoid conflict, neither appears willing to back down on what it considers core values and interests — and many of them are simply incompatible.
"There is no evidence that either leader has fundamentally reconsidered his interest, his goals, his strategy," said Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Center's Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. "So, the leaders are searching for some sort of formula that meets each other's minimal goals that will allow them to try to manage this competition, rather than have it escalate to conflict."
Historian Jeremi Suri of the University of Texas at Austin observed that the peculiar logistics of a virtual meeting could have an impact.
"This might be the wave of the future, where one side doesn't have to concede that 'I will go to your home court,'" Suri said. "But instead, they're both on their own home court. So I think this was actually a very good first step, where both leaders can feel that they're in control, where both leaders can feel that they're being the boss at the same time, and both leaders can claim that they are not making any concessions, even in the location of their meeting."
Washington and Beijing have secured a small positive step ahead of the meeting. At the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, earlier this month, the world's two biggest CO2 emitters unexpectedly announced they would work together to slash emissions and meet regularly to address the climate crisis.
Both Biden and Xi face strong domestic pressures that push them toward a more contentious relationship. A Pew Research poll shows 67% of Americans have “cold” feelings toward China on a “feeling thermometer,” rating the country less than 50 on a 0 to 100 scale. Only 46% said the same in 2018.
With inflation soaring, 70% of Americans say the economy is in bad shape and their approval for Biden’s overall job performance is down to 41% and his handling the economy overall down to 39%, according to a recent Washington Post – ABC News poll.
These numbers are ominous signs ahead of the Congressional midterm elections in 2022 where Biden and his Democratic party runs the risk of losing their slim majority in the Senate and House of Representatives.
“No matter what he does about China, the Republicans will try to brand him as soft on China and as an appeaser, and so he has to watch that,” Daly said.
Meanwhile, Xi continues to consolidate power. Last week the Chinese Communist Party elevated Xi’s status to that of revered leader Mao Zedong and declared his leadership to be the “key to the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” paving the way for him to remain in office for a third term and possibly longer.
“Xi Jinping having just been anointed a living historical figure … he is not going back off and suddenly start making big concessions,” said Cronin.
A recent Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll found that 58% of Americans say that trade between the two nations does more to weaken U.S. national security, a big jump from 33% who felt the same way in 2019
The same poll shows that 40% of Americans say China is economically stronger than the U.S., with most respondents favoring increasing tariffs on products imported from China and significantly reducing trade between the two countries.
Besides the myriad of tension points in the Biden-Xi virtual meeting, another thorny topic is the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
The White House has declined to comment on whether Biden would accept a personal invitation, which may be extended by Xi during their Monday meeting. Activists have called for a boycott of what they’ve labeled the “Genocide Games,” citing China’s human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other minorities.
Psaki did not say whether the two would discuss the Games, noting that it's up to Xi.
"We don't know if he will or will not," she said. "And we'll leave that to them to preview."
The White House said that Biden and Xi will be speaking via interpreters and the meeting is expected to last several hours.
VOA's Paris Huang and Nike Ching contributed to this report.