On Monday, Presidents Biden and Xi Jinping will meet for a virtual summit—the first such meeting of Biden’s presidency. Below, Jacob Stokes, Fellow with the Center for a New American Security’s Indo-Pacific Security program, sets the stage with analysis of what to watch, expectations, and likely outcomes. While there is value in the two leaders continuing to meet, Jake argues that expectations should be kept low.
The language below may be quoted directly with attribution.
Setting the Scene:
- A leader's summit between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping—even a virtual one—is a welcome development and an opportunity for Biden to circumvent Xi's cloistered inner circle of advisors and speak directly to the Chinese leader. There is much to discuss, which is why their earlier engagements, held via phone, in February and September lasted for two hours and 90 minutes, respectively. The two leaders previously spent full days together when they were both vice presidents and are therefore well-acquainted.
On the Agenda:
- Observers should expect Biden to convey in frank terms continued, firm U.S. opposition to China’s assertiveness in its periphery, especially toward Taiwan; the PRC’s human rights abuses in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and elsewhere; and Beijing’s unfair trade practices, including intellectual property theft, economic coercion campaigns, and other market distortions.
- Biden will likely emphasize that China’s provocative military patrols and rapid nuclear modernization program are particularly destabilizing. (Xi, riding high coming off a historic Communist Party meeting that set him up for a third five-year term as China’s leader, will probably respond in kind.)
- At the same time, Biden will likely reiterate that, while the United States expects the two powers to remain engaged in a “stiff” strategic competition for the indefinite future, that fact need not lead to confrontation or conflict. To avoid the latter outcomes, both sides need to take steps to "responsibly" manage frictions and avoid actions that might spark crises. They should also remain in communication to dispel misperceptions and deescalate crises if they arise.
- In this environment, we are unlikely to see announcements of major new bilateral cooperation initiatives. U.S. officials are rightly skeptical of any promises from China.
- Joint steps that meet a less-ambitious standard—such as loose coordination on truly shared interests—remain possible.
- In recent days the two countries’ envoys agreed to a very-broad framework on climate. Biden and Xi might also privately align on a path forward for restraining Iran’s nuclear program, although they appear too far apart for a similar coordinated approach to North Korea. Counter-narcotics and cancer research present two additional possibilities.
- A virtual summit between Biden and Xi provides value, if only to keep the two leaders in occasional personal contact.
- Strategic competition remains the defining attribute of U.S.-China relations, though, so expectations for breakthroughs or bargains should remain very low.
- Standing up for U.S. and allied interests and values while keeping simmering tensions from boiling over will be the order of the day when Biden talks to Xi Monday night.