Upcoming Meeting Between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping Show Willingness to Engage, But Probably Nothing MoreNovember 14, 20233 min read
President Joe Biden is set to meet Chinese president Xi Jinping during this week’s APEC Summit in California, marking the first in-person communication between the two leaders since they spoke in Bali almost exactly a year ago.
While this meeting is not expected to produce notable changes to the United States’ policy toward China, or new initiatives between the countries, the hope is that it will at least keep the doors cracked on such conversations moving forward.
“The purpose of this summit—for both the U.S. and China—is to show that each country is willing to talk to the other,” said Preston Jordan Lim, an assistant professor of international law at Villanova University and expert in Chinese foreign policy. “The fact that both leaders are willing to meet face to face and restart their conversation could well lead to more regularized bilateral communication and, down the road, to some small, bite-sized agreements.”
However, that does not mean the upcoming meeting – and the careful language from both countries during the leadup – are just for show. Lim says that it is very likely the two heads of state will discuss “topics of real concern,” noting that President Biden indicated following their talk in November 2022 that they had “been very blunt with one another.”
There is even more at stake now.
Tensions have been soaring over the last 12 months between the U.S. and China, figuratively and literally. The incident with the Chinese balloon flying over the U.S, along with aggressive maneuvers from Chinese fighter jets near American military planes have earned harsh condemnation from U.S. officials. Separately, China believes the U.S. is trying to “economically cripple” them through a “mix of measures,” according to Lim.
Those are not the only factors fueling tensions.
“The U.S. continues to express significant concerns about aggressive Chinese actions in the South China Sea,” Lim said. “U.S. officials also continue to criticize China’s ongoing genocide of the Uyghur people.
“On top of that, the geopolitical situation is even more tempestuous than it was in November 2022. In addition to the Russia-Ukraine war, both countries are now dealing with the effects of the Israel-Hamas War.”
These are all topics Lim thinks could be discussed this week, in a meeting he says President Xi has more incentive to go through with than President Biden.
“The Chinese economy entered a prolonged economic slowdown in April and there is mounting domestic dissatisfaction with how the Party-state has handled the economy,” Lim explained. “Xi has, on several recent occasions, indicated that the two countries should cooperate more closely. After Governor of California Gavin Newsom’s recent meeting with Xi, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasized that China’s U.S. policy ‘remains one of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation.’
“Clearly, Xi and the Chinese government want to give off the impression that they are willing to have cooperative conversations with the U.S. government, even if they are unlikely to respond in good faith to U.S. concerns.”
That unlikeliness to respond in good faith underscores the true nature of the meeting between the two powers, despite the largely positive messaging from both parties in advance. Does simply meeting at the table mean they will break bread?
“U.S.-China relations are at a nadir right now and may well decline further, even if Xi and Biden meet,” Lim said. “There are serious roadblocks standing in the way of more harmonious bilateral relations, even though cooperation between the two countries has never been so necessary. It remains to be seen whether the U.S. and China will be able to work together on areas of mutual concern given the many stressors in the relationship.”
Preston Jordan Lim, JD Assistant Professor, Law
Professor Lim focuses on contemporary challenges to the international legal system, with an emphasis on Chinese foreign policy.