WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping have no shortage of difficult issues to discuss when they sit down for their first talks in a year, even if expectations are low that their meeting will lead to major breakthroughs.
Each leader has clear objectives for the highly anticipated talks Wednesday on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, a meeting that comes after what’s been a fractious year for the world’s two biggest economies.
Both Biden and Xi are looking to bring a greater measure of stability to a relationship that is being defined by differences over export controls, tensions over Taiwan, the wars in the Middle East and Europe, and more.
A look at what each president is hoping to achieve during their talks:
What Biden wants
The White House has made clear that the U.S.-China relationship is beyond the days where a meeting ends with a long list of announcements and agreements.
Instead, Biden comes to San Francisco focused on managing the countries’ increasingly fierce economic competition and keeping open lines of communication to prevent misunderstandings that could lead to direct conflict between the two powers.
Expect Biden to defend U.S. expansion of export controls on semiconductor chips. At the same time, he will assure Xi that he is not trying to wage economic war with Beijing amid continuing signs that China’s economy is struggling to recover from the economic disruptions of the pandemic.
“The United States has no desire to decouple from China. A full separation of our economies would be economically disastrous for both our countries, and for the world,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told Chinese Vice Premier He Lifeng when they met this past week. “We seek a healthy economic relationship with China that benefits both countries over time.”
The Biden administration has signaled it wants to reopen military-to-military communications that have largely ceased after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August 2022, the first visit by a U.S. House speaker to the self-ruled island since Rep. Newt Gingrich in 1997. Beijing considers Taiwan, a self-governed island of 23 million people, to be part of Chinese territory and vows to unify with it, by force if necessary.
Biden “is determined to see the reestablishment of military-to-military ties because he believes it’s in the U.S. national security interest,” his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” The top U.S. military officer told reporters Friday in Toyko that he has conveyed to China his hopes to resume that stalled communication. “I’m hopeful,” said the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. CQ Brown Jr.
Meanwhile, the U.S. administration has signaled it will hammer home that it seeks no change to the status quo in Taiwan. Washington recognizes Beijing as the government of China and does not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan. But China has perceived American contact with Taiwan as encouragement to make the island’s decades-old de facto independence permanent. Concern about the issue is heightened as Taiwan prepares to hold presidential elections in January.
Biden is also expected to let Xi know that he wants China to use its burgeoning sway over Iran to make clear that Tehran or its proxies should not take action that could lead to expansion of the Israel-Hamas war. Biden’s administration believes the Chinese, a big buyer of Iranian oil, have considerable leverage with Iran, which is a major backer of Hamas.
With the U.S. presidential election less than a year away, administration officials said Biden will make clear that Chinese interference in the vote will not be tolerated.
Disinformation experts warn that Beijing could aim to target the U.S., sowing discord that might influence election results at the local level, especially in districts with large numbers of Chinese American voters.
What Xi wants
Xi is looking for assurances from Biden. Xi wants to hear from Biden that the American president will not support Taiwan independence, will not start a new cold war and will not suppress China’s economic growth.
“A good host needs to avoid creating any new trouble or obstacles,” Xie Feng, the Chinese ambassador, said at a forum in Hong Kong last week.
Beijing’s demands were made clear last November when Xi and Biden met in Bali, Indonesia, during the Group of 20 summit. Relations, however, had hardly stabilized when the U.S. shot down a Chinese spy balloon in February, plunging diplomatic relations to another low.
Now, the two countries “need to return to what was agreed between the two presidents in Bali and truly act on it,” said Wang Wenbin, a spokesman of the Chinese foreign ministry.
Last year, Xi told Biden the Taiwan question was “at the core of China’s core interests, the bedrock of the political foundation of China-U.S. relations, and the first red line that must not be crossed in China-U.S. relations.”
This time Xi will be looking for strong language from Washington opposing Taiwan’s independence.
Xi said in Bali that U.S.-China interactions should be defined by dialogue and win-win cooperation, not confrontation and zero-sum competition. That was a rejoinder to the Biden administration mantra that the two nations should compete vigorously while not looking for conflict. Beijing has bristled at export controls and other measures imposed by the Biden administration, perceiving them as designed to stifle China’s economic growth.
Zhu Feng, dean of the School of International Studies of Nanjing University, said punitive measures from both the Trump and Biden administrations, such as tariffs on Chinese goods, sanctions against Chinese companies and export restrictions on high-tech products such as advanced chips, have become “the most important issue” for China.
Beijing does not want a cold war or geopolitical opposition because it hurts China’s development, Zhu said, and China “will reject and cannot accept those crazy suppression acts of the U.S.”
Beijing has demanded rollbacks in tariffs and sanctions. But Xi, this time, is likely to seek assurance from Biden that the U.S. will not pile new ones onto China.
Xi, who is expected to address American business leaders while in San Francisco, will also look to bolster confidence that China is a safe place to invest as Beijing needs foreign investment to help revive its economy.
In an alarming sign, the country recorded a foreign direct investment deficit during the July-September period, the first time since 1998. Foreign investments have driven much of China’s growth for the past three decades, and a net outflow could indicate Beijing’s inability to attract and retain foreign investments.