Last November, President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping left a virtual meeting determined to chart a new path that would prevent the two superpowers from becoming an open conflict.
But a year later, as the two presidents prepare to meet in person for the first time since Biden took office, Washington and Beijing remain at a diplomatic and economic standoff. On Monday, Biden and Xi will meet on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit and try again to repair the world’s most important bilateral relationship.
The two leaders are likely to offer a familiar refrain about prioritizing stability as they iron out their differences, analysts say. China and the United States clashed over trade, climate change, human rights and Beijing’s tacit support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The two superpowers are also fundamentally at odds over the issue of Taiwan. Disputes over the status of the island’s democracy have fueled much of the recent hostility between China and the United States.
China sees Taiwan as a renegade province it wants to reclaim, a perspective that has gained urgency as Xi has taken a more aggressive stance in military action and rhetoric toward eventual unification.
The US recognizes China’s position without endorsing it. But Biden has said four times that the United States would defend Taiwan militarily if China attacked, a statement that conflicts with Washington’s longstanding policy of remaining silent on what it might do in the event of a Chinese attack. US-China relations worsened in August after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, which Beijing saw as an affront to its sovereignty claims.
In response, China’s military launched missile tests, warships and aircraft around Taiwan for several days, imposed sanctions on Pelosi and cut off all communications with the US. USA in issues as diverse as military relations and climate change.
“It is a very good evolution; at least they’re talking,” said Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. “They’re more likely to agree to resume some discussions about things.”
Even in Taiwan, there is “at least one point in common” between the two countries, Pei added: “They have many differences, but one thing they don’t want to see is direct conflict.”
White House officials stressed that there is no expectation that Biden’s meeting with Xi will produce any progress. The two presidents do not plan to issue a joint statement after the meeting, administration officials said, underscoring how little has changed since Biden and Xi tried to set the tone for their relationship a year ago.
The meeting is instead an opportunity for Biden to “build a floor for the relationship and make sure there are rules of the road that limit our competition,” a senior administration official told reporters Thursday.
Biden said he would not make any fundamental concessions, but wants to “establish what each of our red lines are” and determine whether they “conflict with each other.”
“And if they do, how do you solve it and how do you solve it,” he told reporters at the White House last week.
Asked if he would tell Xi that the US would defend Taiwan in the face of Chinese aggression, Biden said: “I will have that conversation with him.”
Even something as basic as an agreement that the current trajectory of the US-China relationship is unsustainable would be a sign of success, said Jude Blanchette, professor of China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“Both sides probably see the other’s desire to ‘stabilize’ the relationship as more tactical than substantive, given the deep levels of mistrust that exist now,” Blanchette said. “Beijing thinks the US simply wants to normalize the level of hostility it believes it is showing towards it, and in turn the US
For Biden, who relishes face-to-face diplomacy, the meeting is an opportunity to air his views in a way that has only been possible through video conferencing until now, said Andrew Small, a senior fellow in the German Marshall Fund’s Asia Program. .
Biden has held five calls or video conference meetings with Xi since taking office, but he often reminisces about the time he spent with the Chinese leader when the two men served as vice presidents and toured their respective countries together.
The face-to-face meeting is an opportunity to build on that history “to really talk about strategic priorities, their differences, clarify positions and negotiate at least on a limited number of issues,” such as food security, Small said.
Senior administration officials said Biden would seek China’s help over North Korea during its latest round of ballistic missile launches. Biden will also try to convince China to join a global push to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, US officials said.
China refused to condemn Moscow’s assault, but Biden administration officials pointed to Xi’s comments opposing the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine in a joint statement with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz during a recent visit to Beijing.
“The G-20 is a good stage for both Washington and Beijing to be able to say that although the two sides’ rivalry is intensifying, it will be managed responsibly and it will still be possible to deal with each other in some areas of global concern,” Small said.
During Thursday’s daily press conference in Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said China takes the proposed meeting seriously and is committed to cooperating with the United States while defending its own national interests.
“It is important for the United States to work together with China to properly manage differences, advance mutually beneficial cooperation, avoid misunderstandings and miscalculations, and return China-US relations to the right path of solid and stable development,” Zhao said.
He stressed the importance of Taiwan to China and what China sees as US interference in its “internal affairs”.
At the same meeting, Zhao criticized the US for the new limits it has placed on the export of US semiconductor technology to China. The new restrictions are likely to hamper Beijing’s pursuit of more advanced artificial intelligence and military technology.
The Chinese government has invested heavily in its ability to produce more advanced semiconductors, an essential component in computers, smartphones, cars and other consumer goods. However, those efforts have been limited by US export controls on the tools China needs to develop and manufacture its own chips.
China “is the only country that has both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to advance that goal,” Biden wrote in his national security strategy released last month.
Xi and Biden likely think they have the upper hand in the tete-a-tete after political successes at home.
In Biden’s case, the Democrats’ history-defying performance last week in the midterm elections undermines the “America and Western democracy is faltering” narrative that Beijing is likely to present at the G-20 summit, Small said.
“The Chinese government cannot contemplate just trying to keep Biden out for the next two years,” he added.
For Xi, the sit-in comes after a sweeping political victory at the 20th National Congress, where he won his third term as leader of the Chinese Communist Party and cemented his position as the country’s most powerful ruler since Mao Zedong. Having stacked China’s top governing body with its own loyalists could further encourage it to take more aggressive action on Taiwan or other global issues.
At the same time, China faces a number of domestic challenges, including slowing economic growth and growing discontent with the country’s strict policy against COVID-19. Urban youth unemployment hit record highs in China this summer, while consumers’ desire to save has reached its highest level in two decades. The strict controls of the pandemic and the increase in geopolitical risks have also affected multinational companies to invest in China.
“Although both leaders come from positions of strength … the domestic environments of both countries do not seem ready for compromise,” said Ja Ian Chong, associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore. “Some improved ability to prevent miscalculation and unintended escalation would already be a significant gain under the current circumstances.”
Subramanian reported from Phnom Penh and Yang from Taipei, Taiwan. David Shen of the Times’ Taipei bureau contributed to this report.