President Joe Biden hopes to walk away from his closely watched summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday having put the US-China relationship on steadier footing after months of tension between the two superpowers.
With conflicts raging in the Middle East and Europe as he prepares to fight for reelection, Biden hopes to prevent another crisis from exploding on his watch. He is not only looking to demonstrate to Americans – but also to Xi directly – why an improved relationship with Beijing is in everyone’s interests.
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 leaders’ statement, as is customary following summits between leaders.
Instead, the primary objective for the talks appeared to be restoring channels of communication, principally through the military, to avoid the type of miscommunication or miscalculation US 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 “corresponding, being able to pick up the phone and talk to one another if there’s a crisis, being able to make sure that our militaries still have contact with one another.”
For the better part of the last year, US officials have been laying the groundwork for this week’s Biden-Xi summit. With the aim of reestablishing 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 overtures have been extended in the other direction too, with China’s senior-most officials – including its foreign minister – traveling to the US to meet with their American counterparts.
US officials said that working-level consultations had been established with Beijing on especially sensitive topics like arms control and maritime issues.
Sources familiar with those efforts say that 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,” a senior administration official said. “Intense competition requires and demands intense diplomacy to manage tensions and to prevent competition from verging into conflict or confrontation.”
The atmospherics surrounding the summit matched the high-stakes moment. The precise location of the meeting in the Bay Area – a historic estate south of San Francisco called Filoli – was only divulged a few hours ahead of time for security reasons. And US officials said they’d spent hours in discussions with their Chinese counterparts about 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 in US-China relations to the lowest level in decades.
China severed military communication with the US following the visit then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made 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. One source familiar 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 objective was described by American officials as establishing a “floor” for the relationship. The meeting was cordial but also did not produce a list of significant outcomes.
This year, officials have been even more careful to set expectations, suggesting the US-China relationship is simply in a different place than it was when summit talks between leaders produced lengthy sets of “deliverables.”
Keeping the relationship from tipping over into conflict is now the driving aim.
“There is no substitute for leader-to-leader engagement, face to face, to manage a complex relationship like the US-China relationship, and that’s what we’re trying to do here. The US and China are in competition. President Biden is trying to manage that competition responsibly, so it doesn’t tip over 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, like military tensions around Taiwan, China’s disinformation campaigns and human rights violations, as well as potential spots of cooperation, including efforts to combat narcotics trafficking.
Also on the agenda were China’s nuclear buildup, economic issues and work toward curbing climate change.
On Taiwan, the two men were hardly likely to forge major 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 committed at various points to use US military force to protect Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack even as his own aides frequently walk those statements back later. And American officials have watched carefully as China scales up its military exercises in the water and air around the island.
Taiwan will hold an election in January, ramping up sensitivities around its status. Biden is expected to present Xi with “clarity” on the US position, senior administration officials said, meaning he’s likely to reiterate existing policy under which the US acknowledges China’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan.
On the eve of the summit, Biden told donors that China has serious issues, in an apparent reference to the country’s economy, where youth unemployment has soared 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 Tuesday, according to a pool report. “They’ve got real problems, folks.”
The president has previously used off-camera fundraisers to question China’s economic strength, once likening it to a “ticking time bomb,” which drew Beijing’s ire.
Aside from his summit with Biden this week, Xi will headline a dinner with top American executives, eager to court US businesses amid sliding foreign investment in China – and to signal to the US government the importance the private sector still places on China.
As Biden was preparing 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 must challenge Xi, including wrongful detention of Americans and the production of fentanyl.
Biden and his aides are acutely aware of the political backdrop for 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 an agreement with China to crack down on the export of the source chemicals used to make fentanyl ahead of the Biden-Xi talks.
The deal, which has been a priority for 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 to Mexico, the people said.
It could also mark an important domestic political win for Biden, whose administration has grappled with trafficking of lethal illicit drugs like fentanyl in an ongoing crisis at the southern border that has weighed down his administration.