One year after their last in-person talks, Xi Jinping (習近平) and Joe Biden will come face to face once again tomorrow in San Francisco, in an encounter that will dominate events at the Apec summit as the Chinese and US presidents seek to stabilise relations in an increasingly fraught geopolitical climate.
The meeting, which could last several hours, is the culmination of months of lower level dialogues which took place over the summer, with Washington sending more delegates to China than Beijing did to the US.
The fact of China’s leader visiting the US for the first time in six years demonstrates some goodwill from the Chinese side. Among other engagements, Xi is expected to talk at a dinner hosted by the National Committee on US-China Relations and the US-China Business Council, tickets for which start at US$2,000.
A speech from Xi to the US-China business community would underline the Chinese president’s keenness to attract foreign businesses back to China, many of whom have been spooked by the three years of zero-COVID and the recent raids on foreign consulting firms, as well as an increasing number of US restrictions on doing business with China, especially in hi-tech sectors.
Sweeping restrictions on the export of advanced technology to China will come into effect on Nov. 16, the day after Xi’s meeting with Biden. The new rules are a tightening of controls introduced last year, aimed at cutting off China’s access to the most sophisticated semiconductors, which are required to develop advanced artificial intelligence.
“On the supply chain issue, if the United States continues to suppress China’s high-end chips … it will definitely have a negative impact on China’s development of its own electronics industry,” says Shen Dingli, a Shanghai-based international relations scholar, who expects semiconductors to be an area of particular concern for the Chinese side.
Analysts on both sides of the Pacific have criticised the fact that the tariffs on around US$370 billion of Chinese imports imposed by the Trump administration have been left in place by the Biden White House.
There is also a deteriorating geopolitical climate, with China and the US now on opposing sides of two major conflicts, rather than just the Ukraine war, which overshadowed the leaders’ previous meeting at the G20 summit in Indonesia last year.
Isaac Stone Fish, the founder of Strategy Risks, a China-focused data company, says that “Beijing’s political reality matters much more to it than its economic reality,” adding that the wars in Ukraine and Israel-Palestine “are broadly beneficial for Beijing.”
Beijing’s refusal to condemn Hamas for the latest violence in Israel and Palestine has frustrated western leaders and underlines why “the [Chinese] Communist party poses the largest threat to America’s global interests,” Stone Fish said.
Still, relations seem to have stabilized since the downwards spiral that accelerated in February with the downing by US forces of a Chinese spy balloon that was floating over South Carolina. The balloon was later established to have not sent intelligence back to China, but the scale of the crisis in US-China relations triggered by the incident alarmed many observers.
This month, the US and China held talks on arms control and nonproliferation for the first time since the Obama administration. The US state department described the talks as “candid” and “constructive,” as officials discussed how to ensure that economic competition and disagreement on a range of topics including Taiwan did not veer into conflict.
The US and Chinese climate envoys also recently held talks in California, which led to “positive results,” according to China’s ministry of ecology and environment. Details of a new US-China climate agreement are expected to emerge at the Apec summit.
And China and the US, along with the UK, the EU and Australia, were recent co-signatories to the “Bletchley declaration” regarding the risks posed by frontier AI.
But from Beijing’s perspective, the most important issue for the US-China relationship is the same as it was a year ago: Taiwan. Biden has been more forceful than his predecessor in rhetorical support for the self-governing island, which China claims as part of its territory.
Last year, Biden said that the US would send armed forces to defend Taiwan in the event of “an unprecedented attack” from China, comments that were condemned by Beijing.
“Beijing does not see much room to fundamentally alter the course of US-China relations,” says Jude Blanchette, the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But with elections around the corner in both Taiwan and the US, this may be Beijing’s last opportunity to make its case to the Biden administration before a year of upheaval next year.
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