President Joe Biden hopes to walk away from his closely watched summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday having put US-China relations on a more stable footing after months of tension between the two superpowers.
With conflicts raging in the Middle East and Europe as he prepares to fight for re-election, Biden hopes to prevent another crisis from exploding on his watch. He seeks not only to show the Americans – but also directly to Xi – why an improved relationship with Beijing is in everyone’s interest.
Ahead of the talks, US officials were careful to manage expectations, saying they did not expect a long list of outcomes or even a joint leadership statement, as is customary after leaders’ summits.
Instead, the primary goal of the talks appeared to be to restore channels of communication, primarily through the military, to avoid the kind of miscommunications or miscalculations U.S. officials fear could lead to open conflict.
Biden said ahead of his departure for California that he would define success for the sit-down as getting back on a “normal course” with China. He said that included “responding, being able to pick up the phone and talk to each other if there’s a crisis, being able to make sure our militaries still have contact with each other.”
For most of the last year, US officials have been laying the groundwork for this week’s Biden-Xi summit. Aiming to re-establish diplomatic channels between the two countries, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi three times, while Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and US climate envoy John Kerry have all traveled to Beijing.
The indictment has also been extended in the other direction, with China’s top officials – including its foreign minister – traveling to the United States to meet with their American counterparts.
US officials said working-level consultations had been established with Beijing on particularly sensitive issues such as arms control and maritime issues.
Sources familiar with these efforts say Washington has seen signs in recent months that the Chinese are beginning to accept the wisdom of both countries working together to strengthen their lines of communication and mitigate misunderstandings.
“Now is precisely the time for high-level diplomacy,” said a senior administration official. “Intense competition demands and requires intense diplomacy to manage tensions and prevent competition from devolving into conflict or confrontation.”
The atmosphere around the summit matched the tense moment. The exact location of the meeting in the Bay Area was not disclosed in advance for security reasons. And US officials said they had spent hours discussing with their Chinese counterparts the choreography of how the meeting would unfold.
Despite a deep and apparently warm personal relationship cultivated during their time as vice presidents, Biden and Xi have overseen a deterioration of US-China relations to their lowest level in decades.
China severed military communications with the United States after then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last summer. Biden administration officials have been working ever since to restore the channel, but those efforts were hampered by the tense episode involving a Chinese spy balloon that Biden ordered shot down earlier this year. A familiar source said Biden was likely to raise the issue with Xi in passing.
The last time Biden spoke face-to-face with Xi was a year ago in Bali, where the goal was described by US officials as establishing a “floor” for the relationship. The meeting was cordial, but also did not produce a list of significant results.
This year, officials have been even more careful to set expectations, suggesting that the U.S.-China relationship is simply in a different place than it was when summit talks between leaders produced long sets of “deliverables.”
Preventing the relationship from degenerating into conflict is now the driving goal.
“There’s no substitute for leader-to-leader engagement, face-to-face, to manage a complex relationship like the U.S.-China relationship, and that’s what we’re trying to do here. The U.S. and China are competing. President Biden is trying to manage that competition responsibly so it doesn’t degenerate into conflict,” Sullivan said.
The list of topics aides expected the two men to discuss was long. It included major areas of disagreement and strain, such as military tensions over Taiwan, China’s disinformation campaigns and human rights abuses, as well as potential points of cooperation, including efforts to combat drug trafficking.
Also on the agenda were China’s nuclear build-up, economic issues and work to curb climate change.
In Taiwan, it was hardly likely that the two men would forge greater agreement. China’s Communist Party claims the self-governing island as its own and has vowed to take it by force if necessary.
Biden has at various points pledged to use US military force to protect Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack, although his own aides often backtrack on those statements later. And US officials have been watching closely as China scales up its military exercises in the waters and air around the island.
Taiwan holds elections in January, heightening sensitivities over its status. Biden is expected to present Xi with “clarity” on the U.S. position, senior administration officials said, meaning he is likely to reiterate the existing policy that the U.S. recognizes China’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan.
On the eve of the summit, Biden told donors that China is in serious trouble, in an apparent reference to the country’s economy, where youth unemployment has risen and a real estate crisis has spooked investors.
“President Xi is another example of how reestablishing American leadership in the world is taking hold,” Biden said in San Francisco on Tuesday, according to a pool report. “You guys have real problems.”
The president has previously used off-camera fundraisers to question China’s economic strength, once comparing it to a “ticking bomb,” drawing Beijing’s ire.
Apart from his summit with Biden this week, Xi will preside over a dinner with top US leaders, eager to woo US companies amid sliding foreign investment in China – and to signal to the US government the importance of the private sector still attributes to China.
As Biden prepared for Wednesday’s summit, Republicans questioned his decision to seek a meeting with Xi. Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor seeking the GOP presidential nomination, claimed Biden had “begged” for the meeting.
Republicans on a House Select Committee on China sent Biden a letter spelling out areas they believe he needs to challenge Xi, including the wrongful detention of Americans and the production of fentanyl.
Biden and his aides are very aware of the political background of his meeting. Sullivan said Biden was “looking for … practical ways to show the American people that sitting down with Xi Jinping can defend American interests and also deliver progress on the priorities of the American people.”
To that end, US officials were finalizing a deal with China to crack down on exports of the source chemicals used to make fentanyl ahead of the Biden-Xi talks.
The deal, which has been a priority of the Biden administration, would target companies that produce and export the source material to make the deadly synthetic opioid. The goal would be to significantly limit the flow of precursor materials into Mexico, the people said.
It could also mark an important domestic political victory for Biden, whose administration has battled the trade of deadly illegal drugs like fentanyl in an ongoing crisis on the southern border that has weighed on his administration.