All eyes will be on Xi, Biden as they meet in San Francisco

Lee Jeong-Ho and Elaine Chan for RFA
Seoul and Singapore
All eyes will be on Xi, Biden as they meet in San Francisco U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, Nov. 14, 2022.

The world will be watching as Chinese President Xi Jinping meets his American counterpart Joe Biden in San Francisco on Wednesday, amid a fraught climate of bilateral relations marred by a tech war and geopolitical tensions.

Their meeting, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit hosted by Biden, will be their first face-to-face encounter since the presidents of the two superpowers met a year ago in Bali

But analysts say their expectations for the new round of Xi-Biden talks are modest.

Some experts, while not anticipating a change in the trajectory of the Sino-U.S. relationship, are hopeful that the talks will deliver some results such as the formal resumption of military-to-military relations.

Diplomatic and commercial dialogues between the two superpowers have resumed after the downing of a Chinese balloon earlier this year, said Zhang Baohui, director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University. 

“The two sides have even begun strategic dialogues on nuclear and maritime issues. However, the U.S. wants to reopen military-to-military dialogues to prevent inadvertent incidents. This meeting between the top leaders should remove the hurdle for military-to-military exchanges.

“If so, this should be a significant development as the world is very concerned by the prospect of military conflicts between the two countries in sensitive areas like the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea,” Zhang said. 

To be sure, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Monday that both sides during the meeting would discuss strengthening communications and managing competition responsibly so that bilateral relationship “does not veer into conflict.”  

“The way we achieve that is through intense diplomacy,” Sullivan said.

He added there were areas where “interests overlap,” such as efforts to effectively manage competition that could be done by reestablishing military-to-military communications.

Incremental outcomes

If there were any outcomes to emerge from the Xi-Biden meeting, Ian Chong, a political scientist from the National University of Singapore, believes they will be “incremental, but nonetheless important” to maintain the momentum of expanding dialogue.

“Such effects will not be seen immediately after the meeting. Rather, they may unfold as more areas come under discussion in the following months to inject more predictability into the U.S.-PRC relationship to avoid unintended escalation, even as competition continues,” Chong said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

“Xi probably seeks to press the PRC’s case on Taiwan and the South China Sea, while probing the U.S. on trade and technology and seeking more predictably in the bilateral relationship,” he noted. 

“Biden will likely reiterate U.S. positions on Taiwan and the South China Sea, while seeking more stability in the bilateral relationship. They may try to gauge each other’s positions on the Israel-Hamas conflict, Russian aggression in Ukraine, climate, and AI.”

A Chinese microchip is seen through a microscope set up at the booth for the state-controlled Tsinghua Unigroup project during the 21st China Beijing International High-tech Expo in Beijing, May 17, 2018. [Ng Han Guan, AP Photo/File]

In light of the recent expert ban by the Biden administration on microchips, another area of contention that is expected to be discussed is semiconductors, alongside the push for generative AI in both the U.S. and China, said James Downes, head of the Politics and Public Administration Programme at Hong Kong Metropolitan University.

“The key achievable issues or goals will likely relate to the ongoing tech war between both countries,” said Downes. “The Biden-Xi Summit will be much more successful if both sides focus on economic issues, as opposed to long-term and divisive geopolitical issues.”

According to Lingnan University’s Zhang, Xi will no doubt press the United States to relax technology denial measures against China, but he believes the U.S. is unlikely to yield on this issue. 

“Technological competition constitutes a central place in the overall U.S. competition strategy,” he said.

Zhang believes that Xi will try to persuade Biden to return the bilateral relationship to cooperation and away from strategic competition, by seeking a U.S. commitment that it does not support Taiwan’s quest for independence.

Biden, in contrast, will seek to stabilize the competition to prevent “conflict” by pursuing more measures to build “guardrails” for its competition with China, like the resumption of military-to-military dialogues. 

“The U.S. will assure Beijing that it will follow the One China principle. Nonetheless, deepening security cooperation between Washington and Taipei will continue to bother Beijing and lead to contentious relations with the U.S.”

A Chinese coast guard vessel maneuvers beside the Philippine Coast Guard ship BRP Cabra as they approach Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin Shoal) during a resupply mission in disputed waters of the South China Sea, Nov. 10, 2023. [Jim Gomez/AP]

Seeking specific outcomes

Meanwhile, Sullivan said that the U.S. was looking for specific outcomes in the overlapped areas of interests from the summit, which include efforts to combat the illicit fentanyl trade and a discussion between the two leaders on critical global issues such as Russia’s war against Ukraine, and the evolving crisis in the Middle East.

Given China’s stance on the Mid-East conflict, there may be a potential that the leaders may agree-at-large, in expressing the importance of peace in the region.

Geng Shuang, China’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, said in New York on Monday that establishing peace in the region was an important task for Beijing. 

However, it could be challenging for Biden and Xi to release a joint agreement on criticizing Hamas as Beijing has traditionally shown a less sympathetic stance on Israel, when compared to that of the U.S. This difference in diplomatic approaches may complicate the leaders in reaching a more detailed consensus on the Israel-Hamas war. 

In fact, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency, Geng expressed “shock and concern” over statements made by an Israeli minister about using nuclear weapons in the Gaza Strip, and labeled the Israeli remarks as “irresponsible and troubling.”

While Geng condemned the idea of using nuclear weapons, largely aligning with the international community and the Non Proliferation Treaty principles, the senior diplomat did not specifically address or criticize the actions of Hamas, which have led to civilian casualties.

Some 1,400 Israelis, mostly civilians, were killed in a wave of suprise attacks launched in southern Israel on Oct. 7. On the other side, at least 11,000 people, many of them Palestinian children, have been killed in retaliatory airstrikes and ground operations launched by the Israeli military against Gaza in the weeks that have followed, according to news reports.

Radio Free Asia (RFA), a news service affiliated with BenarNews, produced this report. 


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