President Biden is set for a face-to-face, high-stakes meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday as the U.S. and China — two of the world’s biggest economic powerhouses — struggle to defuse tensions.
Biden will go into the meeting in San Francisco with some key goals, including resuming direct military-to-military lines of communication as a way to lower the temperature between Washington and Beijing. The sensitive issue of Taiwan is also on the table, as are the wars in Europe and the Middle East.
The meeting, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, marks the first time Xi has come to the U.S. in six years. Biden and Xi last met one year ago in Indonesia but have not spoken since.
Here are five things to watch for in the Biden-Xi meeting.
Resuming military-to-military communications
The White House has focused on the resumption of a direct military-to-military line of communication as a deliverable goal of the summit, after the Chinese severed the line in August 2022 following a visit by former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to Taiwan.
The Chinese have been “reluctant” to resume the communication channels, according to senior administration officials, so Biden will go into the meeting with plans to “press assertively” on reestablishing them, officials said.
Biden himself said Tuesday a successful meeting with Xi would mean getting “back on a normal course of corresponding, being able to pick up the phone and talk to one another when there’s another crisis, being able to make sure our militaries still have contact with one another.”
The president sees resuming such communications as a key way to dial back tensions, following confrontations between naval ships and airplanes from China and the U.S., along with other countries, in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. There was also the matter of a Chinese spy balloon traversing the U.S. for days earlier this year before the Air Force shot it down.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan said the spy balloon incident is an example of how the president will focus on challenges the China relationship poses in the context of how to deal with them going forward, noting how Biden ordered the takedown of the balloon, its recovery and efforts to exploit the surveillance satellite.
“The United States, the president is going to focus at this point on how he stands up for and protects American interests going forward across the full range of challenges in this relationship, of which this is one,” Sullivan said.
Tensions around Taiwan
Biden is expected to raise the topic of Taiwan during his meeting with Xi, broaching a thorny subject that has been a source of conflict between the two countries in recent years.
The president will “set out a vision for peace and stability and the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” Sullivan told reporters.
That will come in the face of the U.S. pushing back against China’s aggressive military posturing in the Taiwan Strait, warning that Beijing could be preparing for an invasion or blockade of the island in the coming years. The Biden administration has provided weapons to Taiwan, and Biden has said U.S. forces would defend Taiwan against an attack.
That will also make for a politically significant upcoming year, experts said.
“Both countries are expecting a potentially rocky year in 2024 with the Taiwan presidential elections in January 2024 but also the U.S. presidential elections in November 2024, and both could inject more uncertainty into the bilateral relationship,” said Bonny Lin, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
China’s role in global conflicts
The Biden administration has carefully watched Beijing’s response to both the war in Ukraine and the war that has exploded between Israel and Hamas over the last month.
White House officials for months warned of the possibility that China would provide support to Russia to aid in its invasion of Ukraine. Xi met last month with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing, underscoring the relationship between the two nations.
Administration officials have also highlighted China’s potential role in the Middle East conflict, noting Beijing’s ties to Iran, which has through proxies targeted American troops in Iraq and Syria since the war in Gaza began.
“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 interests of — of the [People’s Republic of China (PRC)] or of any other responsible country,” Sullivan told reporters.
“And the PRC, of course, has a relationship with Iran, and it’s capable, if it chooses to, of making those points directly to the Iranian government.”
Competing while avoiding conflict
The Biden administration often describes the relationship with China as a competitive relationship. Top officials and the president have said they are focused on how to manage that relationship so it doesn’t steer into conflict, which will be a large part of the stance going into Wednesday’s meeting.
Officials also argue that reestablishing the military-to-military communications is a way to effectively manage competition and that the diplomacy of the Biden administration so far with China has allowed them to contain it.
Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific security chair at Hudson Institute, described the focus on managing competition as a “very realistic, resilient framework” that the White House has built. He noted that Xi sees this meeting coming at a time to strengthen his economy, which has been reportedly struggling in recent months.
“There is a comprehensive approach to Xi Jinping. He has steered a long-term strategy for the People’s Republic of China,” Cronin said. “He’s continuing to try to accentuate political power, both within, under his leadership, but also outside China, that is to have more influence befitting what he thinks is China’s just position in the world.”
Fentanyl at the forefront
Sullivan said that there may be progress at the meeting when it comes to the matter of containing fentanyl, which could open the door for progress on other crucial issues.
The Justice Department last month announced eight indictments against Chinese companies and nationals, charging them with crimes relating to fentanyl and methamphetamine production, the distribution of synthetic opioids and sales of the chemicals used to make them.
“The issue of fentanyl — we’re hoping to see some progress on that issue this coming week. And that could, then, open the door to further cooperation on other issues where we aren’t just managing things, but we’re actually delivering tangible results. We’ll continue to work at that as we go forward,” he said.
The way Biden handles fentanyl issues in relation to China is set to follow him throughout the 2024 campaign. Republicans consistently hammer Biden on the situation at the U.S. southern border, maintaining that Biden administration policies encourage drugs to come over the border.
Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley recently criticized Biden for having “begged” to get a meeting with Xi and questioned what the two will talk about, arguing that Biden will want to focus on climate change, something the GOP generally casts aside, while he should be discussing the problem of fentanyl in the U.S.