President Joe Biden, beset by conflicts around the world, is seeking to steady his fraught relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping so the White House can instead focus its energy on Israel, Ukraine and the upcoming reelection campaign, according to three senior administration officials.
The two will hold their high-stakes meeting Wednesday — their first face-to-face meeting in a year, and likely their last before the U.S. presidential election — amid a growing threat of military conflict between the world’s two largest economies and a deepening mistrust that has pushed relations to their lowest point in a half century.
Adding to the tension: Biden is expected to press Xi on China’s ties with Iran, including how the Chinese leader can use his influence with Tehran to prevent Iran and its proxies from turning the Israel-Hamas war into a wider regional conflict, according to the officials, who were granted anonymity to discuss international deliberation and strategy.
“Both sides need to avoid blowing each other up,” former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Rick Waters, the inaugural coordinator of the State Department’s China House, said about the rising risk of conflict between the two countries. “That’s the type of signal you need from a meeting like this.”
The meeting — on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in San Francisco — comes as the U.S. seeks to avoid a potential government shutdown. China, meanwhile, is struggling to emerge from a severe economic downturn following countrywide shutdowns during the pandemic and shrinking foreign investment.
China’s ties to Iran have become a more urgent priority given what the Pentagon calls near-daily attacks on U.S. forces in the Middle East by Iran-backed militants. The U.S. has responded with three separate airstrikes on those groups’ Syrian-based facilities.
Biden also plans to focus on climate cooperation, China’s role in the U.S. opioid overdose epidemic and Beijing’s alignment with Russia’s war on Ukraine, according to the officials.
During Monday’s White House briefing, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Biden “sees this not just as a one-off meeting but as an important moment to be able to establish the kind of basis upon which we can proceed out into the future.”
Xi will urge Biden to “respect China’s concerns and legitimate right to development, rather than emphasizing its own concerns at the expense of China’s,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said on Monday.
The two leaders have had no direct contact since they last met a year ago at the G20 meeting in Bali, Indonesia, and pledged to cool tensions. But the presence of an alleged Chinese spy balloonover the continental U.S. in February, Beijing’s increasing saber rattling toward Taiwan, and new U.S. high-tech export restrictions targeting China have further soured the relationship.
The pair need to show a “clear ability to manage tension in a way that doesn’t spill over into crises that neither country wants to get into,” said Nirav Patel, former deputy assistant secretary of State in the Obama administration and now the CEO of the U.S.-based Asia Group consultancy.
Biden had hoped to come to the summit from a point of strength, presenting the U.S. as the reliable leader of a regional alliance of democracies – all aligned against Beijing. But domestic politics are threatening that narrative. Biden is scheduled to arrive late Tuesday night in San Francisco as congressional lawmakers struggle to pass a government funding bill, and disputes between the White House and senior Senate Democrats are threatening to derail Biden’s signature trade agreement that was slated to be unveiled at the APEC summit. That opens up an opportunity for Xi.
“Xi can use APEC as a forum to present China as a compelling alternative” to U.S. global leadership, said Craig Singleton, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonprofit research institute. “And this message occurring at the same time as the U.S. is grappling with government funding negotiations, it feeds the narrative that the U.S. is unreliable and China represents an alternative.”
Biden will need to convince Xi that the U.S. and China still have wiggle room to cooperate. That’s a hard sell considering Biden calls Beijing a threat to the “rules based international order,” accuses it of committing genocide in Xinjiang against predominantly-Muslim Uyghurs, and has waged a three-year campaign to rally partners into coalitions that counter China’s growing diplomatic, economic and military muscle.
The U.S. is pursuing “comprehensive containment, encirclement and suppression against us,” Xi declared in a March speech to Communist Party officials.
The biggest accomplishment may be that the two men are talking at all, according to two of the officials. In many ways, the U.S. hopes are modest: restore the bilateral relationship to where it was in Bali, before tensions escalated.
“It’s not an auspicious time for American compromises toward China,” said Susan Shirk, former deputy assistant secretary of state and current chair of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California San Diego. The Chinese are also “not really energized to produce major deliverables.”
But there will likely be some successes. The White House plans to announce a new commitment by Beijing to stem the flow of chemicals to Mexico that cartels process into fentanyl. One of the officials said that communication between the two nations – including working toward setting up the San Francisco meeting – had grown easier in recent weeks. One highlight could involve the resumption of high-level military-to-military ties, an administration official told reporters last week. Beijing suspended those links as a reprisal for then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit in 2022 to Taiwan.
There are few unifying issues in a divided Washington, but being hawkish on Beijing has created some bipartisanship. And lawmakers in both parties agree that the state of U.S.-China ties demands more from the meeting than just vague rhetoric.
“We have to see action that matches the words,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, top Democrat on the House Select Committee on China, specifically referring to China’s “incessant hacking, the incessant theft of intellectual property, the dumping of economic goods” in the U.S.
Biden will likely also face pressure from others at the forum. “U.S. allies are telling Biden ‘You’ve got to put a floor under this — you cannot allow your relationship with China to deteriorate,’” said David Rank, former chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Beijing during the Obama administration.
In just the past two weeks, U.S. and Chinese officials have met in locales including Beijing, San Francisco and Washington to discuss matters including climate cooperation, rights of people with disabilities,nuclear nonproliferation,maritime issues and economic ties. Beijing is “ready to strengthen communication and dialogue with the United States at all levels,” Chinese Vice President Han Zheng said last week.
Their leaders will test that rhetoric on Wednesday.