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Biden and China's Xi will meet next week. Don't expect it to be a game changer

U.S. President Joe Biden and China's President Xi Jinping are shown meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian resort island of Bali on November 14, 2022.
Saul Loeb
AFP via Getty Images
U.S. President Joe Biden and China's President Xi Jinping are shown meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian resort island of Bali on November 14, 2022.

SAN FRANCISCO — President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping will hold their first face-to-face talks in a year next week, a meeting that analysts say could help stabilize a shaky relationship but probably won't change its trajectory.

U.S.-China ties have long been mired in disagreements over trade, technology, security and human rights, but mistrust and friction have increased markedly in recent years and the Biden administration has re-framed the relationship as one that is fundamentally competitive.

Biden and Xi will have "in-depth discussions" on Nov. 15 in the San Francisco Bay Area as leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) economies gather for an annual meeting in the city, a senior Biden administration official said.

The announcement follows months of back-and-forth diplomacy to smooth over disagreements and set the stage for the leaders' first interaction since they sat down together in Bali, Indonesia, for a few hours last November. Another administration official sought to temper expectations.

"This is not the relationship of five or 10 years ago. We're not talking about a long list of outcomes or deliverables. The goals here really are about managing the competition, preventing the down-side risk of conflict, and ensuring channels of communication are open," the official said.

Already-tense relations were sidetracked after an alleged Chinese spy balloon was spotted drifting across the United States in February. The Biden administration says the balloon was equipped with high tech surveillance gear, and shot it down. China says it was a weather balloon that was blown off course, and accused the U.S. of overreacting.

Since the summer, both sides have made efforts to re-engage. The Biden administration sent three cabinet members and climate czar John Kerry to China. Beijing reciprocated by sending Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Washington in October. And the ruling Communist Party's top economic official, He Lifeng, is meeting Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in San Francisco this week.

Sub-national exchanges have also been on the rise, with a group of U.S. mayors and the Philadelphia Orchestra visiting China this week.

Analysts say Biden and Xi are likely to agree to continue to build on the momentum around dialogue.

"I don't think either side are going in expecting major deliverables or major breakthroughs in the relationship, but it could empower the two sides to continue to make progress on areas where we've seen improvement," said Bonny Lin, Director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington.

She points to so-called people-to-people ties, increased travel between the two countries in the wake of the pandemic, and cooperation on climate change.

"Those are good signs in terms of institutionalizing the dialogue below the two presidents," Lin said.

The Biden administration has been frustrated by what it sees as insufficient Chinese government action to stop the flow of chemical precursors for fentanyl, which is at the center of the U.S. drug overdose epidemic. Officials say it's become a top issue in U.S.-China ties.

The first administration official said Biden will "press assertively" to re-start high level military-to-military dialogue, which was all but severed completely by China after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August 2022.

American officials argue that regular lines of communication are necessary to help de-escalate in the event of a mishap, and some see the chances of such a mishap growing as tensions simmer over the South China Sea and Taiwan, where the two countries' militaries often operate in close proximity.

Oriana Skylar Mastro, a China expert at Stanford University and author of the forthcoming book Upstart: How China Became a Great Power, says she expects the dialogue to resume, but says it's unclear how sustainable or useful it can be given that China tends to uses it as a diplomatic tool.

"You can expect that the next time they get unhappy about something, maybe after the Taiwan election, that they cut them off again. So, unless we have some sort of commitment to sustained engagement, the mil-to-mil exchanges are unlikely to be sufficient to stabilize the relationship," she said. Taiwan is scheduled to hold a presidential election in January.

The first senior administration official said the level of China's commitment to stabilizing the relationship remains unclear.

"The question really on the table: Is China seeking these steps for tactical or short term measures, or are they seeking to truly improve relations with the United States and other allies and partners? And we're going to interrogate those assumptions closely and clearly," the official said.

Experts say Xi will look for reassurances from Biden that U.S. policy toward Taiwan, which Beijing considers part of China, is not changing. Friction and concern over the fate of the self-ruled island has risen in recent years, in part due to increased military activity by China in the seas and skies around Taiwan.

Despite their differences, both Beijing and Washington have paid lip service to the need to continue to engage one another economically, as well as on issues of common concern like climate change.

Earlier this week, Chinese Vice President Han Zheng said recent official interactions between the two countries had sent a positive signal, and Beijing is ready to strengthen dialogue with the U.S. "at all levels".

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John Ruwitch
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.
Tamara Keith
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. In that time, she has chronicled the final years of the Obama administration, covered Hillary Clinton's failed bid for president from start to finish and thrown herself into documenting the Trump administration, from policy made by tweet to the president's COVID diagnosis and the insurrection. In the final year of the Trump administration and the first year of the Biden administration, she focused her reporting on the White House response to the COVID-19 pandemic.