Joe Biden and Xi Jinping will discuss ways to prevent tensions from spiralling into conflict when the US and Chinese presidents hold a virtual meeting on Monday amid rising concern about Taiwan and Beijing’s nuclear arsenal.
The two leaders have held two calls this year but people familiar with the virtual meeting said both sides were lowering expectations about outcomes from the discussion, which is not being billed as a “summit”.
Jake Sullivan, national security adviser, last week said the US and China were in a “stiff competition” but there was “no reason that competition has to turn into conflict”. He said both sides had to make sure that was the case.
The biggest hotspot is Taiwan. Washington is alarmed by China flying warplanes into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone. Beijing worries that Biden may be weakening the “one China” policy under which the US has recognised Beijing as the sole seat of government in China since 1979.
In a speech to Asia-Pacific leaders last week, Xi warned other countries to avoid the “confrontation and division of the cold war”. His comments came two months after the US, the UK and Australia created a security partnership to help Canberra get nuclear-powered submarines. The move was designed to help it bolster its defences against China and co-operate more with the US.
Underscoring the rising concern about Taiwan, Peter Dutton, the Australian defence minister, on Friday said it was “inconceivable” that Canberra would not support the US in any campaign to defend Taiwan against China.
“The fact that he said it out loud is new and shows how much China’s coercion is changing security relationships everywhere in Asia,” said Michael Green, a former senior White House Asia adviser to George W Bush.
In the virtual meeting, Biden is also expected to raise the issue of nuclear weapons, after the Pentagon warned that China would quadruple its nuclear warhead arsenal this decade. But China has shown no interest in nuclear stability talks, partly because the US has many more weapons.
The US has many concerns about China, from its repression of Uyghurs and crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong to frustration with its trade practices. China wants the US to stop meddling in its “core” interests and to return US-China relations to the days of a less antagonistic era.
“Beijing is eager to use the summit to signal to its domestic audience and other countries that the US-China relationship is back on track,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund. “But the Biden administration wants to avoid a scenario in which the Chinese spin this summit as a reset of the relationship.”
The meeting will take place as both leaders face big political events over the coming year. Xi will host the Beijing Winter Olympics in February and is preparing to secure a third term as party general secretary in November. Biden and the Democrats are trying to avoid losing their majorities in Congress in the November midterm elections.
Myron Brilliant, head of international affairs at the US Chamber of Commerce, said “constructive pragmatism at the highest levels” was needed to make any progress, but added that it was unclear how that would be translated into concrete actions given the political constraints.
“The Chinese may want to ratchet the temperature down,” Brilliant said, “but are they willing to make deliverables on issues of importance to the Biden administration? This is a big question mark.”
Zhu Feng, a foreign relations expert at Nanjing University, said he did not expect any tangible progress from the meeting because of what he described as the “increasingly polarised domestic politics” in both nations.
“What we can realistically expect from the summit is for the two sides to understand each other’s bottom line again,” said Zhu.
Biden has taken a range of actions to address challenges from China, from bolstering alliances in Europe and Asia and imposing sanctions on Chinese officials to describing the repression of Uyghurs as “genocide”.
He has faced some criticism about whether he is on the right track, given that Xi has not changed course. But US officials say Biden is more focused on shaping the international landscape in ways that will counter China.
Carolyn Bartholomew, chair of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, said it was also important to put more onus on Xi, not Biden, to make real changes if he was serious about having a better relationship.
“Xi must treat this meeting as an opportunity to be respectful and to make concrete commitments to address a wide range of concerns shared by the US and other countries,” said Bartholomew.
“[This includes] China’s increasing aggressiveness toward Taiwan and Japan, continuation of unfair economic and trade practices such as coercion and subsidies, human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, and destruction of basic freedoms in Hong Kong.”
But highlighting the tense state of the relationship, Wu Xinbo, dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, said Washington should not expect much from an increasingly confident Beijing.
“The Biden administration’s China policy has so far failed to work out and the US has realised that it needs to adjust,” said Wu. “I expect China to stick to its bottom line and press the US to change.”
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