Biden is fond of citing the dozens of hours and thousands of miles he clocked with Xi when both were serving as their country’s vice presidents. He’s claimed to have spent more time with the Chinese president than any other world leader.
But things have changed since Biden, as he likes to recall, was dining with Xi on the Tibetan Plateau and describing the United States in one word: “possibilities.”
Now, the world’s two largest economies are engaged in fierce tensions on trade, military aggression and human rights. And Biden finds himself in a high-wire act with China’s most powerful leader in decades.
“Our two countries are in a fundamentally different place with each other than we have been in the past,” a senior administration official said ahead of the meeting, which Biden has been preparing for with senior aides for several days. “It’s a multi-faceted dynamic, it’s complex and it does not have a historical parallel.”
The talks Monday amount to some of the most critical of Biden’s presidency, given the deteriorating ties between Washington and Beijing and the reality, acknowledged by administration officials, that managing the US relationship with China will amount to Biden’s most critical international objective.
White House officials believe a large South Lawn signing ceremony for a massive new public works package, scheduled a few hours before Biden’s virtual summit, will signal progress on the main underpinning of his foreign policy: proving democracies can deliver more effectively than autocracies like China. He plans to detail the new infrastructure package to Xi.
The fact the bill was passed with help from some Republicans — fulfilling Biden’s promise to work across party lines — helps sustain his pledge to prove democracies can work, according to the officials.
Yet he still enters the talks at a politically weakened moment. His party fared poorly in off-year elections this month in Virginia, and polls continue to show his approval rating at some of the lowest levels of his presidency.
That is in sharp contrast to Xi, whose consolidation of power in China was cemented last week when the Chinese Communist Party adopted a landmark resolution elevating him in stature to his two most powerful predecessors — Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Officials said the upgrading of Xi’s status only enhanced the imperative of a face-to-face with Biden.
Nearly every issue Biden is focused on, domestically and internationally, has a nexus to China. Supply chain issues that are driving inflation at home can be traced in part to shortages in Chinese plants. Combatting climate change requires buy-in from Xi, who has shown some willingness to partner with Biden on the issue. Managing global trouble-spots like North Korea and Iran each involves coordination with Beijing.
The virtual summit Monday is not expected to produce specific outcomes on those or any of the other myriad ways the US and China agree or disagree. Instead, US officials previewed a discussion meant to further expand lines of communication through “intense diplomacy” so the current state of “stiff competition” does not topple over unintentionally into conflict.
At lower levels, that “intense diplomacy” has begun producing results, according to US officials. After a rocky beginning at the start of the administration, captured when US and Chinese diplomats open sparred during a meeting in Alaska, American officials now say their Chinese counterparts had recently become more willing to engage in substantive discussions on a range of issues as the Xi-Biden meeting approached.
Biden is a fan of in-person meetings and complained early in his presidency that virtual summits — where foreign leaders are patched in on video screens — could not replicate the chemistry of sitting face-to-face. American officials say leader-to-leader meetings are even more important with Xi, whose inner circle has become smaller and smaller and who now wields a historic level of power.
Over the summer, aides were hopeful of setting up a meeting between the two men on the sidelines of this year’s Group of 20 summit in Rome. But Xi has not left China in nearly two years, partly over Covid-19 concerns. So Biden settled on a virtual summit instead as a way to advance his two previous phone conversations with Xi.
“There is something different about actually seeing someone physically, about the depth of the conversation you can have, versus just on a regular phone line,” said the official, who described different ways of preparing for a video conference compared to just a phone conversation.
Officials said they have been preparing Biden for three main areas of discussion in the meeting, which they expect to last several hours. (The men will speak through interpreters.)
First, Biden plans to spell out in broad terms his approach to China, which is rooted in a plan to compete more aggressively in technology and industrial policy while avoiding outright military conflict.
Second, he plans to be “direct and candid” in raising areas where the US and China do not agree, like human rights abuses against the Uyghur minority in the the western Xinjiang Provence or a military buildup in the South China Sea. Biden plans to tell Xi he expects him to follow internationally agreed-upon “rules of the road.”
And third, he hopes to discuss places where the US and China can cooperate, including on nuclear non-proliferation and climate change. The two countries recently surprised observers at the COP26 climate talks in Scotland with a joint pledge to cut emissions.
Officials acknowledged Xi could steer the conversation in other directions, including possibly inviting Biden to attend the upcoming Winter Olympic Games in Beijing (the White House has not said whether Biden would accept).
They said they didn’t expect Biden to raise the issue of easing tariffs, left over from the Trump administration, which some experts have said could help ease current inflation concerns. China has also not delivered yet on its promise to purchase $200 billion of American products, made as part of Trump’s trade agreement.
What officials hope is for the two men to engage in a conversation that goes beyond symbolic words and delves deeply into substance.
“President Biden knows that the competition between our two countries has global implications. As a global leader, he takes that seriously,” the official said. “But ultimately he is meeting with President Xi to protect the prosperity and security of the American people and people around the world.”