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Biden-Xi meeting offers both leaders opportunities — and risks

Each president has room back home to ease tensions, polling has found.
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SAN FRANCISCO — Simply by sitting down with his Chinese counterpart Wednesday, President Joe Biden may go a long way toward calming voters who fear that the two global powers are on a march to war.

After a fraught year marked by near misses in the skies between U.S. and Chinese warplanes, both Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping need the meeting that’s set to take place in California, if for no other reason than to reassure a jittery world audience that they are once again talking, foreign policy experts said.  

Before he left Tuesday for San Francisco, Biden told reporters that the purpose of the meeting is “to get back on a normal course of corresponding: being able to pick up the phone and talk to one another if there’s a crisis, being able to make sure our militaries still have contact with one another.”

Each president seems to have space back home to ease tensions, polling suggests. A Morning Consult survey showed that the share of Chinese adults who view the U.S. in hostile terms has dropped 9 points since April. Another survey found that only 13% of U.S. voters wanted an aggressive approach toward China, while a majority worried more about open conflict with China than about the U.S.’ not appearing tough enough in its dealings with Beijing.

Such trends could blunt a potential line of attack against Biden from Donald Trump, the Republican presidential primary front-runner. In the 2020 campaign, Trump sought to paint Biden as soft on China, an accusation he’s likely to repeat in a rematch. But the public’s mood suggests that Biden could gain traction with more moderate and independent-minded voters by pursuing a dialogue with Xi and eschewing the hawkish stance many in Trump’s orbit embrace.

“I can understand why Republicans who are worried about being primaried want to keep doing this red meat stuff,” said David Loevinger, a former senior U.S. Treasury official in charge of China policy.But if you’re going after the center, I think people would rather have talk than conflict.”

Yet the meeting carries risks for Biden ahead of the presidential election. If China takes actions after the summit that run counter to U.S. interests, Biden could open himself to accusations that for all the stagecraft and summitry, he was outmatched.

The two leaders will cover a variety of thorny subjects, including wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, and they aren’t expected to reach major accords. Any agreement that comes out of the summit is likely to involve more modest efforts to revive military hotlines that have broken down in recent years, regulate the fast-evolving advances in artificial intelligence and stem the flow of fentanyl into the U.S. from China, experts said.

A car drives past a screen on a building feature Chinese President Xi Jinping's meeting with President Joe Biden
A public news broadcast of Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden's meeting airs on a screen in Hong Kong in November 2022.Lam Yik / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

The summit “will get a lot of attention, but I’m not expecting big, sweeping agreements that will change the course of the world,” said Victor Cha, a former White House National Security Council official. “The broader indicators are that these two countries are on this long-term competitive track.”

But it may be a rare instance in which a face-to-face meeting is itself a breakthrough. It will be the first time Biden and Xi have met in person since they spoke a year ago at a summit meeting in Bali, Indonesia.

Since then, relations between the two have been strained by the Chinese spy balloon that floated over the U.S. and harrowing encounters in the air and sea lanes between China and Taiwan, the self-ruling island that China claims as its own. In June, Biden referred to Xi as “a dictator,” a slur that caught even senior U.S. officials off-guard.

At the closed-door summit, whose location has been kept secret for security reasons, Biden is expected to press Xi to use his leverage to stop North Korea from supplying weapons to Russia in its war with Ukraine. Another of Biden’s aims is to get Xi to persuade Iran not to use its proxies in the Middle East to combat Israel in its war with Hamas.

“President Biden will make the point to President Xi that Iran acting in an escalatory, destabilizing way that undermines stability across the broader Middle East is not in the interest of the PRC or of any other responsible country,” Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, told reporters at a briefing Monday, using the initialism for People’s Republic of China. “And the PRC, of course, has a relationship with Iran, and it’s capable, if it chooses, of making those points directly to the Iranian government.”

Having laid out what he wants of Xi, Biden can ill afford for Xi to defy him and permit Iranian and North Korean meddling in the two wars. Biden has billed himself as a deft negotiator on the world stage, and he could face a backlash if relations with China deteriorate after the summit.

As for Xi, he would like to see fewer high-level visits to Taiwan from U.S. officials, former diplomats said. He may also use the meeting to drive home a point he made in March, when he accused the U.S. and the West of making moves that amount to the “containment, encirclement and suppression of China,” impeding its development.

With so much on the agenda, the meeting could well surpass the three-hour session the two had in Bali. When it is finished, Biden will hold a news conference at which he is expected to emphasize points of agreement rather than paint Xi as a threat. In the run-up to the summit, past and current U.S. officials have pointed to weaknesses in the Chinese economy as a reason Xi may want to take a more cooperative stance.

“We’re not trying to decouple from China,” Biden told reporters. “What we’re trying to do is change the relationship for the better. From my perspective, if ... the average citizen of China was able to have a decent-paying job, that benefits them and it benefits all of us.”

Much can go wrong — for both men. The Chinese are sensitive to slights and breaches of protocol. Were they to get out of hand, any of the planned protests in San Francisco could quickly overwhelm the summit. In 2006, when then-Chinese President Hu Jintao visited George W. Bush at the White House, a heckler disrupted the carefully staged welcome ceremony.

"The Chinese complained about that for two months afterward," Cha recalled.

Biden has his own worries. Unless Congress passes a spending bill, the U.S. government will shut down at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. Biden hasn't ruled out returning early from San Francisco, where he's also attending a summit of Asian-Pacific economies, to keep the government up and running. An early exit would prove embarrassing for Biden, who has sought to portray democracy as a better governing model than autocracy.

A shutdown, Sullivan cautioned, "would send a signal to the world that the United States cannot pull together on a bipartisan basis to sustain government funding and to show a united face to the world at a moment where you see this turbulence around the world."