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Biden and Xi’s Most High-Stakes Meeting In Decades

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Tensions are high as two world superpowers prepare for a pivotal meeting. On Wednesday, US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping will sit down face-to-face in California for critical talks that could shape the future of their tense relationship.

A lot is at stake here. From Taiwan to the Middle East, the bilateral agenda is packed with contentious issues that are mostly to blame for the turbulent relationship between the two nations.

Could this meeting end up stabilizing their shaky relationship, or will it end up causing collateral damage?

US President Joe Biden will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping for face-to-face discussions on November 15th. It will mark the second in-person interaction between Biden and Xi since Biden assumed the presidency. The meeting provides an important opportunity for the two leaders to directly engage on issues impacting relations between their nations, coming on the heels of over a year since their last face-to-face meeting.

As leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC, economies gather for an annual meeting in the city they will have “in-depth discussions” according to a senior Biden administration official.

The announcement of the Biden-Xi summit comes after extensive behind-the-scenes diplomacy intended to ease tensions and pave the way for a constructive dialogue between the two leaders, since their last meeting in Bali over a year ago.

The relationship between the U.S. and China has been deeply complicated for years, with persistent differences on issues like trade, technology, regional security concerns, and China’s record on civil liberties and human rights.

Derek Scissors, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, discussed possible challenges for the two leaders in their upcoming meeting in an interview with CNBC.

CNBC’s Deirdre Bosa also discussed how technology-centered discussions could pave the way for a stabilized relationship between the U.S and China.

With this challenging backdrop, Biden and Xi will have a full agenda to cover during their meeting, according to U.S. officials. In addition to contentious topics like Taiwan and China’s territorial ambitions, they are expected to address several acute international situations raising alarms for both countries.

This includes the ongoing war in Ukraine and its global economic fallout, as Russia remains a key ally of China.

Officials said they will also likely touch upon the recent conflicts erupting in the Middle East. Additionally, the leaders may discuss continuing concerns from Washington about foreign election interference emanating from Beijing.

Diplomatic ties between the United States and China took a turn for the worse earlier this year following a series of provocative incidents.

Tensions were already high after China cut off military communications with the U.S. last summer in retaliation for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taiwan.

But relations further deteriorated in February when an alleged Chinese surveillance balloon drifted across American skies. The Pentagon reacted strongly, scrambling fighter jets to shoot down the balloon off the coast of South Carolina.

China insisted it was merely a weather research balloon blown astray, but the Biden administration accused Beijing of an espionage attempt using sophisticated spyware.

The high-profile balloon affair infuriated leaders in Washington and brought US-China relations to their lowest ebb in decades.

Since the summer, both sides have made efforts to re-engage.

Biden’s administration sent three cabinet members as well as the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, to China.

Beijing reciprocated the gesture by sending over Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Washington in October.

Another example of efforts to reconnect is the fact that the Chinese Communist Party’s top economic official, He Lifeng, is also meeting Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in San Francisco this week.
On the other hand, amid small efforts here and there to patch-up the tense relationship, the Biden administration has been frustrated by allegedly insufficient action from the Chinese government to address the flow of chemical precursors for fentanyl. Officials say that this is a high priority issue when it comes to US-China relations.

However, China has actually agreed to tighten restrictions on companies exporting chemicals used to manufacture fentanyl, a deadly synthetic opioid. This deal is expected to be finalized when Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping meet in their upcoming meeting.

According to two senior Biden administration officials, the president is firmly committed to reopening military communication channels with China, which were severed last year. However, China seems hesitant and unwilling to restore bilateral military contacts at this time.

Another administration official stated that the current US-China relationship is not what it was 5 or 10 years ago. The goals of the upcoming summit will not be focused on achieving a long list of agreements or tangible outcomes.

Rather, the priorities are centered on managing the competitive aspects of the relationship, avoiding potential conflicts, and keeping communication channels open between the two countries. The official emphasized that expectations for major breakthroughs are low compared to previous high-level meetings in the past.

However, the issue of Taiwan will likely top China’s agenda during the summit. China claims sovereignty over the self-ruled island nation, which has elections coming up early next year.

President Xi may seek further assurances from Biden that the U.S. does not support Taiwanese independence. Meanwhile, Biden is expected to voice concerns over China’s escalating military activities directed at Taiwan.

The Taiwan dilemma promises to be a tense topic between the leaders as China reacts furiously to any perception of U.S. interference in what it considers a domestic affair.

Biden aims to firmly but respectfully convey U.S. interests on Taiwan while searching for common ground with Xi to reduce rising cross-strait frictions. But with China resolute on reunification and Taiwan increasingly asserting its autonomy, a compromise remains elusive.

In addition to Taiwan, the leaders are expected to address other contentious issues including U.S. export controls on sensitive technologies to China as well as ongoing disputes over Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. These technology restrictions and maritime tensions have further strained the relationship between the two global powers.

Aside from disagreements over trade and technology issues, Biden will likely encourage China to use its influence to restrain Iran’s escalating violence in the Middle East. He will ask China to warn Iran against fueling further instability and conflict in the region. Biden hopes to get China’s cooperation on moderating Iran’s aggressive actions, even as the two powers clash on many other fronts

While analysts predict the Biden-Xi summit may yield modest accomplishments, neither side expects major breakthroughs that would fundamentally reset the turbulent US-China relationship. The goal is incremental progress in managing tensions and preventing uncontrolled escalation.

China’s ambassador Xie Feng recently touted positive momentum but stressed assurances are needed that America does not aim to transform China’s political system, spark a new Cold War, back Taiwan independence, or pursue economic decoupling.

For its part, the Biden administration contends it is simply confronting China’s aggressive actions that contravene international rules. US officials say they have continually raised restoring vital military-to-military dialogues over the past year, but Beijing remained unresponsive.

And so the superpowers remain locked in a delicate dance – rivals yet intertwined, seeking equilibrium between competition and cooperation. While a grand bargain remains elusive, the leaders hope to craft guardrails to bound the spiraling distrust. But with national pride and regional dominance at stake, finding compromise will prove a formidable challenge.

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