Chinese leader Xi Jinping is visiting the US this week for the first time in six years, amid rising tensions and competition between the world’s two largest economies. The visit, which includes a meeting with US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco, is seen as a crucial opportunity to ease the friction and find areas of cooperation on global issues.
The US-China relationship has deteriorated to its worst level in decades, as the two countries clashed over trade, technology, human rights, national security, and geopolitics. The outbreak of war in the Middle East, where China has close ties with Iran, a key supporter of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, has added another layer of complexity and urgency to the bilateral dialogue.
The visit also comes after a series of diplomatic exchanges between the two sides, including visits by four cabinet-level US officials to Beijing over the summer, and a trip by California Governor Gavin Newsom to China in October, where he discussed climate cooperation with Xi. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also made the rounds in Washington last week, meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other senior US officials.
The Biden administration has adopted a dual-track approach to China, seeking to compete where necessary and cooperate where possible. Biden has said that he does not seek a new Cold War with China, but rather a “steady and stable” relationship that is based on “practical results”. He has also stressed the importance of working with allies and partners to present a united front to China on issues of common concern.
Xi, who secured a norm-shattering third term in power last year, has presented himself as a confident and assertive leader, who is determined to defend China’s core interests and advance its global influence. He has also signaled a willingness to improve ties with the US, saying that the two countries should respect each other’s differences and avoid confrontation. He has called for a new type of “major-country relations” that is based on mutual benefit and win-win cooperation.
The meeting between Biden and Xi, which will be their first face-to-face encounter since Biden took office in January, will be a pivotal moment in the US-China relationship. The two leaders are expected to discuss a range of topics, including trade, fentanyl, cybersecurity, technology, and foreign policy. They will also likely address the war in the Middle East, and explore ways to de-escalate the situation and support a peaceful resolution.
The meeting will also be a test of trust and communication between the two leaders, who have known each other for a long time and have spoken twice by phone this year. Biden, who met Xi when he was vice president under Barack Obama, has described him as a “smart” and “tough” leader, but also a “thug” and a “dictator”. Xi, who hosted Biden in Beijing in 2011, has praised him as an “old friend” of the Chinese people, but also a “rival” and a “challenger”.
The meeting will not be a repeat of the warm and friendly summit that Xi had with former President Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida in 2017, where the two leaders bonded over chocolate cake and a Chinese folk song. The US public opinion and political climate toward China have changed dramatically since then, as both Democrats and Republicans have adopted a tougher stance on China. The Chinese public opinion and media coverage of the US have also become more negative and hostile, as Beijing accuses Washington of interfering in its internal affairs and containing its rise.
The meeting will not be a breakthrough or a reset of the US-China relationship, either. The two leaders are unlikely to announce any major deals or agreements, or resolve the deep-rooted differences and disputes that divide them. The meeting will not end the intense competition and rivalry between the two countries, which will continue to shape the global order and the future of humanity.
The meeting will, however, be a chance to stabilize and manage the US-China relationship, and prevent it from spiraling into conflict and confrontation. The two leaders will seek to establish some basic rules and norms of engagement, and identify some areas of common interest and potential cooperation, such as climate change, pandemic response, and nuclear non-proliferation. The meeting will also be a signal to the world that the US and China, despite their differences and challenges, are willing and able to work together on some of the most pressing issues facing the planet.
The meeting between Biden and Xi will not be easy or comfortable, but it will be necessary and important. It will be a test of trust and cooperation between the two leaders, and between the two countries. It will be a test of whether the US and China can coexist peacefully and constructively, or whether they will fall into a trap of conflict and confrontation. It will be a test of whether the US and China can shape the future of the world, or whether the world will shape the future of the US and China.