(Trends Wide) — When Chinese President Xi Jinping “shows up” at the White House on Monday night for a virtual summit with President Joe Biden, the two men will need no introduction.
Biden likes to cite the dozens of hours and thousands of miles he traveled with Xi when they were both vice presidents of their country. He claims to have spent more time with the president of China than with any other world leader.
But things have changed since Biden, as he likes to recall, dined with Xi on the Tibetan plateau and described the United States in one word: “possibilities.”
Now, the world’s two largest economies face severe tensions over trade, military aggression and human rights. And Biden is on the tightrope with China’s most powerful leader in decades.
“Our two countries are in a fundamentally different place from each other than we have been in the past,” said a senior administration official before the meeting, for which Biden has been preparing with senior aides for several days. “It is a multifaceted dynamic, it is complex and has no historical parallel.”
Monday’s talks are some of the most critical of the Biden presidency, given the deterioration of ties between Washington and Beijing and the reality, acknowledged by administration officials, that the management of the United States’ relationship with China it will be Biden’s most critical international target.
White House officials believe the grand signing ceremony for a massive new public works package in the South Lawn, scheduled a few hours before Biden’s virtual summit, will be a sign of progress in the main pillar of their policy. foreign: demonstrating that democracies can deliver more effectively than autocracies like China. He plans to detail the new infrastructure package to Xi.
The fact that the bill was passed with the help of some Republicans – fulfilling Biden’s promise to work without distinction of parties – helps keep his promise to show that democracies can work, according to officials.
A moment of political weakness
However, the president comes to the talks at a time of political weakness. His party fared poorly in this month’s Virginia election, and polls continue to show his approval rating at some of the lowest levels of his presidency.
This is in stark contrast to Xi, whose consolidation of power in China was cemented last week when the Chinese Communist Party adopted a landmark resolution that elevates him in stature to his two most powerful predecessors: Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Officials said the elevation of Xi’s status only increased the need for a face-to-face with Biden.
Almost every issue Biden focuses on, both domestically and internationally, has a nexus with China. The supply chain problems that are causing inflation in our country may be due in part to shortages in Chinese factories. Fighting climate change requires the involvement of Xi, who has shown some willingness to collaborate with Biden on this issue. Managing global trouble spots like North Korea and Iran requires coordination with Beijing.
No waiting for results
Monday’s virtual summit is not expected to produce specific results on these issues or on any of the myriad ways the United States and China agree or disagree. Instead, US officials held a debate aimed at widening the lines of communication through “intense diplomacy” so that the current state of “stiff competition” does not inadvertently lead to conflict.
At the lower levels, that “intense diplomacy” has begun to pay off, according to US officials. After a rocky start early in the administration, caught when US and Chinese diplomats openly clashed during a meeting in Alaska, US officials are now saying their Chinese counterparts have been more willing to engage in substantive discussions of a number of late. of issues as the meeting between Xi and Biden approached.
Biden, fan of in-person meetings
Biden is a fan of face-to-face meetings and complained early in his presidency that virtual summits – in which foreign leaders connect via video screens – couldn’t replicate the chemistry of sitting face-to-face. US officials say leader-to-leader meetings are even more important with Xi, whose inner circle is shrinking and now wields a historic level of power.
Over the summer, the advisers were hoping to set up a meeting between the two men on the sidelines of this year’s G20 summit in Rome. But Xi hasn’t left China in nearly two years, partly because of COVID-19 concerns. So Biden opted for a virtual summit as a way to advance his two previous phone conversations with Xi.
“There is something different in actually seeing someone physically, in the depth of the conversation that you can have, compared to a normal phone line,” said the official, who described the different ways of preparing for a video conference compared to a simple telephone conversation.
Three main areas in the Biden-Xi dialogue
Officials said they have been preparing Biden for three main areas of discussion at the meeting, which they expect to last several hours. (Men will speak through interpreters).
First, Biden plans to outline his approach to China, which is based on a plan to compete more aggressively on technology and industrial policy, while avoiding open military conflict.
Second, he plans to be “direct and honest” in raising areas where the United States and China disagree, such as human rights abuses against the Uighur minority in western Xinjiang province or military expansion in the United States. South China Sea. Biden plans to tell Xi that he hopes he will follow the internationally agreed “rules of the game.”
And thirdly, he hopes to discuss where the US and China can cooperate, including nuclear non-proliferation and climate change. The two countries recently surprised observers at the COP26 climate talks in Scotland with a joint commitment to cutting emissions.
Other possible directions
The officials acknowledged that Xi could steer the conversation in other directions, including the possibility of inviting Biden to attend the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing (the White House has not said whether Biden would accept).
They said they did not expect Biden to raise the issue of tariff easing, left by the Trump administration, which some experts have said could help ease current concerns about inflation. China has also not yet fulfilled its promise to buy $ 200 billion in American goods, made as part of the Trump trade deal.
What officials hope is for the two men to engage in a conversation that goes beyond symbolic words and delves into substance.
“President Biden knows that competition between our two countries has global implications. As a world leader, he takes it seriously,” the official said. “But ultimately, he is meeting with President Xi to protect the prosperity and security of the American people and the peoples of the world.”