What’s at stake when Biden and Xi hold rare face-to-face meeting this week?

Issues such as Taiwan, Israel’s war on Hamas, Russia’s assault on Ukraine and their bilateral trade are expected to dominate talks between two superpowers

Alisha Rahaman Sarkar
Sunday 12 November 2023 12:42 GMT
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Related: Biden insists US can back two wars at the same time in Israel and Ukraine

US president Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping will meet in San Francisco this week for the first time in over a year.

The leaders of the world’s two largest economies are expected to hold talks on Wednesday on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, with the aim of stabilising diplomatic relations that have plummeted over issues such as Taiwan, human rights and spy balloons.

China's aggressive stance towards Taiwan and the South China Sea, as well as discussions of how to boost mutually beneficial trade in spite their geopolitical differences, are likely to be the dominating topics during the conversation, analysts say.

The leaders’ views on the latest developments in the Israel-Hamas war and Russia's invasion of Ukraine are also expected to feature.

While the talks are unlikely to fix the fundamental differences between the two countries, officials in Washington believe there is scope for productive discussions that result in modest announcements.

There is already optimism that the two leaders will commit to some form of new joint US-China climate agreement, after Beijing took a step in this direction by unveiling its plan to tackle methane emissions earlier last week.

We don’t know exactly when or where Biden and Xi will sit down to talk, with both administrations refusing to share key details about the meeting citing security reasons.

The leaders will discuss the “continued importance of maintaining open lines of communication” and how they “can continue to responsibly manage competition and work together where our interests align, particularly on transnational challenges that affect the international community", White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

“Having the world’s two largest economies at loggerheads at such a fraught moment exacerbates the negative impact of various geopolitical shocks that have hit the world economy," Eswar Prasad, senior professor of trade policy at Cornell University, told the Associated Press.

“Preventing any further deterioration in the bilateral economic relationship," he said, "would already be a victory for both sides."

The meeting has been months in the making, with experts dubbing it a “logistics nightmare”. The world leaders will be meeting for only the second time in person since Mr Biden entered office, and the San Francisco summit will mark Mr Xi's first visit to the US in six years.

They last faced each other over a year ago on the sidelines of the 2022 G20 leaders’ summit in Bali for an in-depth meeting that lasted nearly three hours.

Since then the relationship between the two biggest economies has turned sour over Washington's unrelenting support to Taiwan —a sticking point for China.

Beijing claims Taipei is obliged to reunite with the mainland, by force if necessary, and has no right to conduct foreign relations. While the US officially obliges by the "one China" policy, it supplies the largest amount of weapons to Taiwan of another country in the world.

Ahead of Taiwan's presidential election, Beijing expects Washington to provide reassurances that the US doesn't support the island's sovereignty.

Beijing had abruptly cut off communication with the US military last year following then-House speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan.

Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen’s pit stop in the US this year added another dent to ties.

Since then a plethora of Biden officials have visited Beijing in an effort to restore military communication channels.

Beijing last month fired US-sanctioned defence minister Li Shangfu, which could allow the resumption of high-level military talks with the US.

The relationship has also been strained with Beijing bristling over new US export controls on advanced technology and president Biden ordering the shooting down of a Chinese spy balloon after it traversed the US mainland.

Mr Biden will also likely press Mr Xi on using China’s influence on North Korea, during heightened anxiety over an increased pace of ballistic missile tests by North Korea as well as Pyongyang providing munitions to Russia for its war in Ukraine.

Mr Biden is also expected to let Xi know that he would like China to use its burgeoning sway over Iran to make clear that Tehran or its proxies should not take action that could lead to expansion of the Israel-Hamas war.

His administration believes the Chinese, a big buyer of Iranian oil, have considerable leverage with Iran, which is a major backer of Hamas.

The leaders are expected to pledge a ban of the "use of artificial intelligence in autonomous weaponry, such as drones, and in the control and deployment of nuclear warheads", South China Morning Post reported, citing two sources familiar with the matter.

Thousands of people protesting the climate crisis, corporate practices, the Israel-Hamas war and other issues are expected to descend on San Francisco during the summit.

San Francisco Police Department Chief Bill Scott said his department expects several protests a day but doesn’t know which ones will materialise where and when.

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