WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected to hold summit talks in San Francisco next week as they seek to stabilize tense ties by meeting in-person for just the second time in nearly three years, but little bonhomie and no grand bargains appear in the offing.
The summit on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum follows a six-month U.S. push to engage its geopolitical rival, including through several unreciprocated cabinet-level visits, and recover from a diplomatic crisis over the U.S. downing of an alleged Chinese spy balloon in February.
“This is going to overshadow anything that happens at APEC,” said Oriana Skylar Mastro, a Stanford University China expert.
While U.S. officials said there was “agreement in principle” for Xi and Biden to meet in San Francisco – a year after they last saw each other on the sidelines the G20 summit in Bali – Beijing has yet to confirm Xi will attend the Nov. 15 to 17 APEC gathering.
APEC is a group of 21-member economies that accounts for about 62% of global GDP and almost half of global trade, but it has increasingly become a stage for strategic competition between the U.S. and China. While no big breakthroughs are expected and Biden administration officials say announcing a slate of meeting outcomes is an outdated way to measure progress in relations with China, experts have pointed to possible signals of improvement – such as increasing commercial flights between the countries – or steps toward cooperation on thornier issues, like stemming the flow of fentanyl precursor chemicals from China.
U.S. officials have expressed some optimism of improvement in largely severed military communications, but also have cautioned that restoring truly functional dialogue between the two militaries could take time.
Some analysts believe China seeks ambiguity in defense relations to constrain what Beijing sees as U.S. military provocations in the region.
“It’s going to be very business-like, very hard nosed – a lot on the agenda that they’re both going to be trying to work through,” said Victor Cha, an Asia expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “But at the same time, I guess, talking is better than not talking.”
China has played hard to get in response to an eagerness by Washington to secure a summit, with Beijing suggesting that Xi’s attendance hinged on the U.S. showing “sufficient sincerity.”
The Biden administration has faced criticism from Republicans for playing to Beijing’s hand, but argues the stakes are so high that direct engagement, particularly at the leader level, is vital to managing tensions and preventing disputes between the superpowers over issues like Taiwan and the South China Sea from veering into open conflict.
Despite the difficulties nailing down the summit, China has been struggling with economic issues after years of strong growth and has signaled that it wants friendlier ties by agreeing to preparatory meetings, such as nuclear arms control discussions that Washington has sought for years.
Protesters are expected in San Francisco next week – some to support Beijing and others to demonstrate against China’s human rights record.
Biden will welcome other APEC leaders – including from Vietnam, the Philippines, Canada and Mexico – and both he and Xi will be playing to the gallery.
Matthew Goodman, a trade expert who was White House coordinator for the last U.S.-hosted an APEC summit in 2011, said the U.S. will seek to sell itself as the most dynamic economic partner for Asia, in contrast with a slowing China.
“There are a lot of concerns about China’s economic conditions and its policies in the region,” Goodman said. “I don’t think they’re going to explicitly try and twist the knife as it were, but I think they will try to show by comparison that the U.S. is growing well.”