President Biden will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Nov. 15 in San Francisco in what the White House views as the most important and consequential bilateral meeting of Biden’s term.
The two leaders will meet on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, one year since they last talked face-to-face on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, and as global conflicts and direct tensions between Washington and Beijing have derailed communication and cooperation.
“We know efforts to shape or reform China over several decades have failed. But we expect China to be around and to be a major player on the world stage for the rest of our lifetimes,” a senior administration official said during a call with reporters Thursday evening.
“And we think diplomacy is how we clear up misperceptions, signal, communicate, avoid surprises and explain our competitive steps.”
Xi’s trip to San Francisco will mark the first time the Chinese leader has come to the U.S. in six years. In 2017, he attended a lavish dinner meeting at former President Trump’s Mar-A-Lago residence in Palm Beach, Fla.
The choice of the latest venue is practical, with the White House holding back from giving Xi a prestigious trip to Washington but signaling the administration’s commitment to righting a relationship that has veered off track.
A Biden official also sought to play up the sentimentality of San Francisco for the Chinese leader — who visited the city in 1985 on his first trip to the U.S. as part of an agricultural delegation.
“And certainly a visit to San Francisco, I think will be the first since he was a young Communist Party secretary in the provinces,” the official said late Thursday.
“So just the location and the venue offers some new pieces that you wouldn’t see in a capital-level visit.”
The list of consequential bilateral and global security topics to be discussed are many. Senior administration officials are downplaying a long list of deliverables and focusing instead on what they view as achievable goals with outsized benefits.
This includes the resumption of a direct military-to-military line of communication that the Chinese severed in August 2022 following a visit by then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to Taiwan.
“The president has been determined to take the necessary steps to restore what we believe are essential communications between the United States and China on the military side, and we’ll have more to say about that next week,” the senior administration official told reporters.
Having direct military-to-military channels is viewed as a key way to lower the temperature in the U.S. and China relationship that has been strained and plummeted over different crises.
This includes the administration’s discovery and shootdown of a Chinese spy balloon over U.S. territory in February and confrontations between naval ships and airplanes from China and the U.S., along with other countries, in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.
“I think the balloon episode underscored the difficulty we had at the time to be able to establish high level, consequential communications with Beijing, and we’ve made that case persistently and consistently,” a senior administration official said.
A second administration official characterized the Chinese as being “reluctant” to resume the communication channels, “and so the president is going to press assertively next week and we hope to have more to report on Wednesday.”
The White House signaled that nearly all hot-button issues between Washington and Beijing will also be part of Biden’s talk with Xi on Wednesday.
This will include issues such as the status of Americans detained in China, and the outflow of fentanyl precursor chemicals from China.
Biden is also expected to bring up artificial intelligence, with the president earlier this month issuing an executive order seeking to lay out the responsible development of a technology that has raised risks for its potential misuse, in particular in how China could use it for surveillance or pursue it for war aims.
Election interference in the U.S., and concerns over Chinese aggression toward Taiwan, including any potential interference in its upcoming election, are also expected to be a fraught topic of conversation.
And while the U.S. views China as its toughest competitor for influence on the world stage, the Biden administration has also recognized how China can exert influence amid global conflicts.
Biden officials had earlier pointed to remarks coming from Xi against the use of nuclear weapons as helping to reign in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s increasingly bellicose rhetoric surrounding the weapons of mass destruction.
On North Korea, the White House is watching with concern as ties between Beijing and Pyongyang grow, and seeks to speak directly with Xi about the need to roll back North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un’s more provocative missile launches and its proliferation of weapons for Putin’s war in Ukraine.
“We will also reiterate our readiness to conduct diplomacy with North Korea and our determination to take steps to deter provocations and to seek the full denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” the official said.
In the Middle East, the president is expected to raise with Xi concern over China’s growing ties with Iran — the U.S. is working to avoid a larger outbreak of conflict with Iran as Israel battles the Tehran-backed Hamas-terrorist group in the Gaza Strip.
“I believe that the president will underscore our desire for China to make clear in its burgeoning relationship with Iran, that it is essential that Iran not seek to escalate or spread violence in the Middle East,” the official said, “and to warn quite clearly that if Iran undertakes provocative actions anywhere, that the United States is prepared to respond and respond promptly.”
The meeting between Biden and Xi marks at least their eighth interaction since the start of the U.S. president’s term but builds on a relationship stretching back over a decade, when both leaders served as vice presidents.
The White House looks at Biden’s history and experience with the Chinese leader as one of the main benefits in the administration’s goal to manage the relationship responsibly.
“The goals here really are about managing the competition, preventing the downside risk of conflict and ensuring channels of communication are open,” the official said Thursday evening.
The second administration official added that the White House is “looking to stabilize the relationship in ways that support our partners and our alliances and also support the American people.”