Amid an array of contentious issues between the United States and China, including spy balloons, nuclear build-ups, and technology crackdowns, the White House concerns itself with a much more specific detail – the view from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s window during his visit to California. As President Biden prepares for his meeting with President Xi, both sides are aiming for a highly choreographed diplomatic dance, carefully managing each moment, from Mr. Xi’s entrance to the timing of their handshake. However, despite the ceremonial preparations, expectations for substantive agreements are low.
One concrete agreement that is expected to arise from the meeting is the resumption of military-to-military communications, which were suspended by China after Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in 2022. Both sides are also discussing the possibility of a commitment to keeping artificial intelligence software out of their nuclear command and control systems. However, given China’s historical reluctance to negotiate its nuclear arsenal, any progress in this area could be significant.
Notably, the bar for substantial outcomes from the meeting is strikingly low. There is no plan for a joint statement, and each government will provide its own account of the discussions. Gone are the days when summits between U.S. and Chinese leaders resulted in concrete agreements on key global issues. Instead, the focus now is on managing competition responsibly through intense diplomacy, as stated by Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser.
China’s objectives include seeking assurances from the United States that it does not seek a new Cold War, while the U.S. aims to address concerns over China’s technology shipments to Russia and its support for sanctioned Russian and Iranian oil. There is also a potential discussion about China’s rapid nuclear buildup and the war in Gaza. However, while these issues and more will be on the agenda, officials acknowledge little expectation for significant behavior change from either side.
Furthermore, the meeting serves as an opportunity for both leaders to gauge each other’s positions on Taiwan. Previously, American officials were conducting exercises on how to respond to potential attacks, but recent assessments suggest that China’s economic slowdown has bought some time, making broad economic sanctions a risky move for Xi. However, Chinese officials have expressed concerns about the upcoming elections in Taiwan, fearing a move towards independence that would force China to act.
In the lead-up to the summit, Chinese officials have closely observed American political discord, while Republicans have criticized Biden’s approach to stabilizing the U.S.-China relationship. The House select committee on China has urged Biden to challenge Xi on various tensions, including the wrongful detention of Americans and near collisions between Chinese and American vessels. Although the administration has not offered detailed plans for addressing these issues, it is expected that Biden will emphasize the importance of noninterference in the Taiwan election and discuss concerns about China’s nuclear buildup.
Overall, the meeting between Biden and Xi is a carefully planned affair meant to manage competition diplomatically rather than through engagement. The Biden administration aims to demonstrate its commitment to the Indo-Pacific region and its partnerships with other countries, such as India and Indonesia, which have been targeted by Chinese aggression. Meanwhile, Xi will focus on presenting China as open for business to American industry leaders.
In conclusion, while expectations for substantive agreements are minimal, the meeting provides an opportunity for both leaders to assess each other’s positions and engage in diplomatic choreography meant to maintain stability in the U.S.-China relationship.