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New Atlanticist November 7, 2023

How Biden can make the most of a meeting with Xi

By Colleen Cottle

A lot has transpired since US President Joe Biden last met in person with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Group of 20 (G20) Summit in Bali almost a year ago. And yet, the two leaders now find themselves in a rather similar position ahead of an expected meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit, which will take place November 15-17 in San Francisco.

To be sure, the tenor in the bilateral relationship is less sharp than it was at this time last year, in the aftermath of Beijing’s aggressive response to then US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s August 2022 visit to Taiwan. This year’s Xi-Biden meeting would, instead, come after a spate of high-level visits to Beijing by senior Biden administration officials over the summer and a productive visit to Washington in October by China’s most senior foreign policy official, Wang Yi, which was aimed at paving the way for a Xi-Biden meeting. Nonetheless, like last year, both sides would likely approach a meeting this month as an opportunity to maintain high-level dialogue and to stabilize bilateral ties that are still on edge.

Both Biden and Xi are under pressure to demonstrate strength and resolve vis-à-vis their counterpart, while preventing a further escalation in tensions that could cause political and economic blowback.

While the tone may be softer than it was a year ago, the stakes for the year ahead are arguably higher now. The two leaders will need to signal a commitment to maintaining open lines of communication, given global crises that seem to be multiplying and the difficult domestic year ahead for both leaders. Both Biden and Xi are under pressure to demonstrate strength and resolve vis-à-vis their counterpart, while preventing a further escalation in tensions that could cause political and economic blowback.

In 2024, Biden will face a contentious presidential election in which China is likely to feature prominently as a campaign issue. This gives the Biden administration even less appetite for showing any softening of its stance on China, whether it comes to further controls on the sale of US tech products, support for Taiwan, or criticism of China’s human rights record. At the same time, however, the US public does not want open conflict with China; 78 percent of Americans consider avoiding a war with China “very important,” according to new polling sponsored by National Security Action and Foreign Policy for America. These findings suggest Biden could gain politically from leaning into a statesman role during a meeting with Xi, demonstrating his commitment to maintaining open lines of communication and stability in the US-China relationship.

Meanwhile, Xi continues to contend with a fragile economy that faces several headwinds going into the new year, including weak consumption, a reeling property market, slowing exports, and waning foreign investor confidence. These economic vulnerabilities will probably heighten Chinese leaders’ sensitivity to being perceived as weak in their dealings with foreign counterparts. Some observers speculated that one factor in Xi’s decision to not attend this year’s G20 Summit in New Delhi was that he didn’t judge China to be in a strong enough position vis-à-vis the United States to meet with Biden and other leaders on the sidelines of the summit. At the same time, the depth of these economic challenges cuts both ways. These difficulties probably reinforce for Xi the need to show that he is working to stabilize the bilateral relationship with the United States. Xi likely also feels the need to shore up the confidence of foreign investors, which have turned their backs on China this year and which Beijing desperately needs to attract to improve its economic growth prospects. 

Given these stakes, here are four ways Biden could make the most of the expected meeting with Xi this month:

Afford Xi the gravitas he desires without overdoing it. Ensure the meeting is conceptualized and portrayed as more than a perfunctory bilateral meeting, but rather a true working session between two statesmen, in line with Xi’s effort to prove that he is up to the task of managing a challenging relationship with China’s most important foreign counterpart. While this won’t produce new concessions or soften Xi’s strategy vis-à-vis the United States in any way, it might at least encourage Xi to engage with more candor, specificity, and substance when talking about China’s strategic intent behind closed doors.

Make effective use of private conversation to discuss the most sensitive issues. At the top of the list for Xi will be addressing US technology restrictions, including the latest export controls announced last month, as well as US support for Taiwan, especially ahead of Taiwanese elections scheduled for January 2024. The latter point offers Biden a chance to privately reiterate the United States’ longstanding policy of not supporting Taiwan’s independence while opposing any unilateral changes to the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. Biden should take the opportunity to raise the cases of wrongfully detained Americans in China, as well as the problematic revision and implementation of China’s anti-espionage law and its impact on US firms. Biden can also urge Xi to play a more productive role in both Russia’s war in Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas war, including by pressing Iran to hold back from intervening in the latter conflict. Other US asks, such as reestablishing the bilateral military communications channel, are worth reiterating but not dwelling on for long.

Pursue a small number of discrete outcomes for the year ahead. One potential, if politically fraught, target could be the creation of a dedicated channel to discuss artificial intelligence (AI) norms and guardrails. This would build on last week’s UK-convened AI Safety Summit, where China signed on to work with the United States and many of its allies and partners on a common approach to identifying and addressing AI risks. Such a channel could be modeled after some of the working-level communication channels on export controls and commercial issues that US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo announced during her visit to China in August, despite strong opposition from congressional Republicans. Other outcomes could involve better coordination between both countries’ law enforcement agencies on fighting the flow of fentanyl and its precursor components or coordination on the delivery of humanitarian assistance in Gaza.

Make communication and stabilization the central themes of the meeting’s public messaging. Touting the importance of sustained and open lines of high-level communication is probably one of the best ways right now for the two leaders to signal to the world and to their domestic audiences a shared commitment to stabilizing the bilateral relationship. Such communications are critical to prevent misunderstandings from escalating into conflicts and to effectively coordinate responses to new fast-breaking crises or evolving ones, such as planning for a possible escalation in or evolution of the Israel-Hamas war or planning for postwar reconstruction in Ukraine.

Last month, San Francisco unveiled a new slogan: “It all starts here.” As the marketing firm responsible for the phrase explained, the work to improve the city has “to start somewhere.” Unintentionally, of course, it seems an appropriate notion for US-China relations as Biden and Xi prepare to travel to the city by the bay.

Colleen Cottle is the deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub. Cottle previously spent over a dozen years at the Central Intelligence Agency serving in a variety of analytic and managerial roles covering East and South Asia.

Further reading

Image: US President Joe Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 leaders' summit in Bali, Indonesia, November 14, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque