Wednesday’s highly anticipated summit between the two most powerful men in the world, U.S. President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, is aimed at restoring the relationship — as important as it is turbulent — between the two great world economic powers. The two leaders will address issues such as the crisis in the Middle East, the war in Ukraine, Taiwan, and the fight against fentanyl trafficking.
The meeting will take place 25 miles from the center of San Francisco, in the historic Filoli mansion, a country estate from the early 20th century with English-style gardens frequently visited by tourists. An idyllic enclave, far from the heavy security measures that, due to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in which both are participating this week, have turned downtown San Francisco into a claustrophobic succession of fenced-off areas.
It is the first time the two will have spoken, either face to face or by phone, in an entire year. Nine months after a suspected Chinese spy balloon passed through U.S. airspace and sent the bilateral relationship into a tailspin, the meeting is a sign that the two leaders are eager to restore lines of communication. It’s not expected that they will make any grand announcements on agreements, or make progress on thorny issues such as Taiwan or technological rivalry. But the fact that they are sitting down to talk is, in itself, a sign of progress and that they want to stabilize a relationship that has been filled with antagonism and mistrust.
Biden himself pointed out, before leaving for San Francisco, that his goal for the meeting is for relations “to get back on a normal course,” even if the two maintain their disagreements. “Being able to pick up the phone and talk to one another if there’s a crisis, being able to make sure our militaries still have contact with one another,” Biden told reporters at the White House. “We’re not trying to decouple from China. What we’re trying to do is change the relationship for the better.”
A day earlier, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan gave more details about what is expected from the meeting. “We anticipate that the leaders will discuss some of the most fundamental elements of the U.S.-PRC bilateral relationship, including the continued importance of strengthening open lines of communication and managing competition responsibly so that it does not veer into conflict,” he said. “The way we achieve that is through intense diplomacy. That’s how we clear up misperceptions and avoid surprises.”
The meeting will take place on the sidelines of the APEC summit in San Francisco, which both Biden and Xi need to be a success. The Chinese president is coming into the summit after two complicated years in office, which have seen unprecedented citizen protests, the end of the zero-Covid policy, a faltering economy and mysterious changes in the government that have left the executive without a defense minister. Biden, on the other hand, is about to enter the heat of the 2024 presidential election campaign as the conflict between Israel and Hamas continues and there is still no end in sight to the war in Ukraine.
Get relationship back on track
“This is a summit designed to shore up the relationship in the hope that it does not deteriorate further, in the face of a potentially very volatile year, with our own elections scheduled for later, and Taiwan’s elections in January,” said Mike Froman, a former foreign trade negotiator in the Barack Obama administration who now works at the Council on Foreign Relations. “They both want to get the relationship back on track, stabilize it, so they can focus on their internal challenges,” added Ian Johnson, from the same think tank.
Taiwan, the island with a democratic administration that China considers part of its territory, is the great red line for Beijing. Xi’s government — which has not ruled out unifying the island by force — will monitor the elections in Taiwan closely. It wants the conservative Kuomintang, which is more inclined to maintaining a good relationship with China, to win, and would be horrified if the election was won again by the Democratic Progressive Party, which has a policy of distancing itself from the other side of the Taiwan Strait (also known as the Formosa Strait).
“Both [Biden and Xi] probably see the Taiwanese elections as a possible spark, and neither wants anything to happen. Biden has his re-election at stake and the last thing he needs is another foreign policy crisis, he already has one on his hands in the Middle East,” explained Johnson.
According to Bonnie Lin from the Center for International Strategic Studies (CSIS), “managing Taiwan is probably going to be the number one issue on the agenda for China, and Beijing may seek additional guarantees from the United States.”
One of the White House’s main objectives is to reestablish communications between China and America’s respective armed forces. These lines of communication have been broken since August last year, when then-House speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to Taiwan. Since that moment, there have been numerous clashes involving air or sea patrols in the skies or waters around Taiwan and in the South China Sea, over which China claims to have almost entire sovereignty despite claims from other countries in the region. Washington argues that, without a means of communication, one of these incidents could easily trigger a more serious confrontation.
Biden will also ask Xi for cooperation in the fight against fentanyl, an opioid that claims tens of thousands of American lives a year. Although the synthetic drug largely enters the U.S. via Mexico, China manufactures the precursors for the drug. “It would be good for the president of the United States to be able to show ordinary Americans that relations with China are more than just an esoteric thing, that they can bring benefits to ordinary people,” said Johnson.
According to Sullivan, both leaders will also address global issues of common interest, such as the war in Ukraine and the conflict between Israel and Hamas. The national security advisor argued that Beijing is also keen to reduce tensions in the Middle East. He explained that an Iran acting in a “destabilizing way” is not in the interests of China, which has strengthened its relations with Tehran in recent years. “The PRC [People’s Republic of China], of course, has a relationship with Iran, and it’s capable, if it chooses to, of making those points directly to the Iranian government,” said Sullivan.
Two different superpowers
Beijing, for its part, has been softening its tone ahead of the meeting. An editorial in the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, said the meeting “will be of great significance for stabilizing and improving China-U.S. relations, and for the two countries in jointly coping with global challenges and promoting world peace and development.”
The article states that the two superpowers are different, but that should not prevent them from finding common ground. “China will not become another U.S., and the U.S. cannot reshape China according to its own likes and dislikes,” it argued. It also made reference to Xi’s virtual meeting with Biden in 2021, when the Chinese president said: “The most important event in international relations in the coming 50 years will be for China and the U.S. to find the right way to get along.”
The article also highlights red lines that should not be crossed, such as respect for agreements that have governed relations between both superpowers since they resumed ties in the 1970s, an implicit allusion to the one-China policy with respect to Taiwan.
Jude Blanchette, from the CSIS, pointed out in a meeting with correspondents in Beijing that China considers it has more options to “modulate” Washington’s actions in the future if the two have stabilized relations. A rapprochement is also of economic interest to China: although Beijing seems to be recovering after a summer of economic setbacks, it is seeking to move with Washington towards a more stable world. It does not want foreign investors to lose interest in China, and it is also keen to avoid soaring energy prices as a result of the war between Israel and Hamas.
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