Explainer: As Xi-Biden Meet After a Year, Both Sides Play Nice, but Expectations Are Low

The US and China are the world’s two largest economies, but the APEC summit in San Francisco will be the first time that their leaders would be talking to each other in over a year.

New Delhi: When they meet today in California, each and every second of the meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping would have been mapped out. The intricate choreography highlights the delicate nature of their relations, with both sides cautious in not raising any hopes of any substantive takeaway – even as there is buzz about the possibility of reopening military communication.

Why is this meeting significant?

The US and China are the world’s two largest economies, but the APEC summit in San Francisco will be the first time that their leaders would be talking to each other in over a year. Last time, Xi and Biden had met on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Bali in November 2022 for about three hours. The US leader had hoped to talk with Xi during the 2023 G-20 summit in India, but the Chinese President was a no-show in New Delhi.

How has China been signalling its intent before the meeting?

As a former Obama administration official told the Wall Street Journal, Chinese state commentaries in the run-up to the visit have said that “it’s OK to be nice to the Americans now.”

Xinhua has been running a series of commentaries on “Bringing China-US Relations Back on Track”, which emphasise that the two countries have enough common ground to not have a confrontational relationship. It is not surprising that all of them blame the downturn in relations on Washington.

“Whether the reality of interdependence between the two countries has been ignored, the history of win-win cooperation has been distorted, channels of dialogue and communication have been blocked, or the so-called “strategic competition” has been used to define and influence Sino-US relations in a dangerous way, it has brought great harm to the people of the two countries and the world. The future of various countries has brought huge variables. The root cause is that the United States has a wrong understanding of China, the world, and itself,” said the Xinhua opinion piece of November 10.

Three days later, another commentary noted that the meeting is “significant for truly stabilising and improving China-US relations and for jointly addressing global challenges and promoting world peace and development”.

According to a fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations, Ian Johnson, the summit meeting may be more crucial for Xi than previously, because he has been through a rough two years, with economic and political turmoil unusually marking the leadership.

“So I think that for Xi it matters to be able to show to his domestic constituents, people in the Politburo, that he’s got the United States – that relations aren’t spinning out of control,” he said.

What are the US administration’s expectations?

“Managing” the relationship seems to be the key aim for the US which had keenly pursued a Xi-Biden meeting by sending four senior US administration officials to Beijing over several months.

On Monday, US national security advisor Jake Sullivan had said that the core element of the bilateral relationship is now about “managing competition responsibly so that it does not veer into conflict”.

With foreign policy fires breaking out all over the globe from Ukraine to Gaza, the US administration will need to make sure that the relationship with China does not add fuel to the fire. As Biden goes into re-election year, it will be important to maintain peace on some fronts, even though foreign policy typically does not emerge as a primary voting concern in the US elections.

What are expected to be the main deliverables?

White House officials have informed reporters that there won’t be a joint statement, signalling a modest expectation in terms of outcomes. Instead, each side will release its own readouts, focusing on their respective key concerns.

Till now, the US side has largely indicated that there could be one concrete deliverable. White House’s Sullivan had specifically referred to “re-establishing military-to-military communications” which had been snapped by China after Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last year. Biden had also said that it will be his “goal” on Tuesday.

According to some observers, Taiwan would be the most important topic to be discussed at the summit. China is likely to seek assurances that Washington will not back any particular candidate in the upcoming elections in Taiwan in early 2024.

For the US, an agreement on plugging the import of chemicals that are used to make fentanyl, a leading cause of deaths due to opioid addiction, would be a victory for Biden, which he could tout as a tangible foreign policy achievement that will impact the people. But, as per reports, China has linked potential restrictions on trade of precursor chemicals on the condition that the US has to lift sanctions on Chinese police foreign institute in a quid-pro-quo deal.

The South China Morning Post had reported earlier that the two sides are expected to sign an agreement on the use of artificial intelligence in autonomous weaponry and control and deployment of nuclear warheads. However, the Financial Times reported that China was only seeking an “expanded dialogue” in this domain with the “hope that engagement would delay further US restrictions”.

The US and China have diametrically opposite views on the two current conflicts in Ukraine and the Palestinian territories. Having positioned itself as a leader of the Global South, Beijing is unlikely to find much common ground with Washington on these geopolitical hotspots, beyond giving public utterances about the need to contain the spread of the conflict.