It’s been a year since President Xi and President Biden last met, and it’s hard to overstate what a rollercoaster ride U.S.-China relations have had since then.
The fact that this meeting is happening is the result of months of delicate planning.
But for all the “tough” and “tough” images that both men attempt to disseminate nationally, there is a mutual recognition of one key fact: It would cost more, both politically and economically, to let relations s ‘envenom.
Just nine months ago, relations between the United States and China reached what seemed like an all-time low. Chinese spy balloon shot down on the United States, plunging their diplomacy into crisis.
The broad context of the disagreements of Taiwan, the Indo-Pacific, the Ukrainian Wartechnological controls and economic sanctions made the relationship as precarious and dangerous as it had been in decades.
But the summer was marked by an increase in diplomatic efforts to try to repair the damage, with multiple meetings of officials at different levels.
Both sides know that the margin for progress is narrow.
Next year, Taiwan’s presidential election will likely inflame tensions, and the inevitable anti-China sentiment that will accompany the U.S. election cycle will undoubtedly only make things worse.
The time has come to play statesmanship and defend their interests!
What do they want?
Have no illusions, both of you Biden And XI come to this table with immense skepticism about each other’s intentions.
Significant progress is highly unlikely.
What they both seek is some degree of what is called “tactical stabilization” – a pause in deterioration that will allow each to pursue their interests in a more predictable environment.
On the American side, it is understood that only a meeting of the highest leaders will unblock the Chinese system and allow cooperation on some of the “easier” issues such as climate change and global health.
There is also hope that military-to-military talks can resume after being interrupted following former Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s speech. controversial visit to Taiwan last year.
From China’s perspective, a pause in deterioration gives it the space to continue building its economic and military strength to be more competitive in the future.
Visuals are also important to Xi Jinping domestically.
It hasn’t been a stellar year for him, with a chaotic end to his hated run. zero COVID policy, a faltering economy and deteriorated relations with several Western countries. Being seen as capable of managing this crucial relationship is important to presenting oneself as a competent statesman.
So what will they discuss?
There are many disagreements that could be raised, but here are the top three on the list:
Territorial claims and military tensions
China’s increasingly assertive behavior in the disputed areas it claims as its own is perhaps at the top of the long list of problems between them.
The largest is Taiwan, the self-governing island that China considers a breakaway province. Xi has repeatedly expressed his desire to “reunify” Taiwan, Biden has promised to defend it.
The other area where tensions are rising is the South China Sea.
China claims the vast majority of its international waters, despite rival claims by the Philippines and others. In 2016, an international arbitration tribunal ruled overwhelmingly in favor of the Philippines.
However, in recent months there have been frequent clashes between Chinese and Filipino shipsand here too, the United States reiterated its commitment to supporting the Philippines.
The United States says that in both areas, China’s behavior is becoming increasingly aggressive and, in some cases, dangerous. He has posted videos of Chinese planes flying frighteningly close to American planes, in one recent case just 10 feet away.
The Americans say the risk of accidents and escalation is serious.
China, for its part, says it is the behavior of the United States that constitutes the dangerous force. He views the American presence in these regions as a blatant provocation in his backyard.
These are deeply intractable problems, the best we can hope for is some sort of agreement on an exit if things ever get out of hand.
The two leaders will also discuss the two major ongoing global conflicts in Ukraine and Middle East.
In both cases, they adopted radically different tactics.
When it comes to Ukraine, China has tried to present itself as a neutral peacemaker, one of the only countries that can engage with both sides.
The reality, however, is that Xi has made no secret of his growing closeness to Poutine and quietly provided Russia with finance, technology and diplomatic cover.
Meanwhile, in the Middle East, he called for a ceasefire and peace, but stopped short of directly condemning Hamas for the October 7 atrocities and the state media adopted a decidedly pro-Palestinian tone.
In both cases, China’s approach categorically opposes that of the United States, and it has criticized its rival for its unqualified support for both countries. Israel and Ukraine and the provision of military assistance.
Basically, both have an interest in ensuring that the other does not gain advantage or influence through the results of these conflicts.
Technological and economic sanctions
There are still a series of technological restrictions and economic sanctions between them.
Over the past month, new measures have been announced from both sides, with China limiting US access to graphite (a crucial component in battery manufacturing) and the US further restricting access to China to semiconductors.
The goal of both sides is to hinder the other’s ability to develop in key areas such as AI. But this trade war hurts them both, as they remain major trading partners and both economies are heavily dependent on each other.
Xi in particular needs to alleviate these problems.
Amid a declining economy, he is trying to attract foreign investment to China and is expected to meet with American business leaders in San Francisco.
A smooth summit could help him avoid, at least temporarily, further U.S. restrictions and could help boost the confidence of some foreign companies spooked by the imposition of state restrictions and raids on a handful of U.S. companies based in China.