President Joe Biden hopes to walk away from his closely watched summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday having put the US-China relationship on steadier footing after months of tension between the two superpowers.
With conflicts raging in the Middle East and Europe as he prepares to fight for reelection, Biden hopes to prevent another crisis from exploding on his watch. He is not only looking to demonstrate to Americans – but also to Xi directly – why an improved relationship with Beijing is in everyone’s interests.
Ahead of the talks, US officials were careful to manage expectations, saying they did not expect a long list of outcomes or even a joint leaders’ statement, as is customary following summits between leaders.
Instead, the primary objective for the talks appeared to be restoring channels of communication, principally through the military, to avoid the type of miscommunication or miscalculation US officials fear could lead to open conflict.
Biden said ahead of his departure for California that he would define success for the sit-down as getting back on a “normal course” with China. He said that included “corresponding, being able to pick up the phone and talk to one another if there’s a crisis, being able to make sure that our militaries still have contact with one another.”
For the better part of the last year, US officials have been laying the groundwork for this week’s Biden-Xi summit. With the aim of reestablishing diplomatic channels between the two countries, national security adviser Jake Sullivan has met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi three times, while Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and US climate envoy John Kerry have all traveled to Beijing.
The overtures have been extended in the other direction too, with China’s senior-most officials —including its foreign minister — traveling to the US to meet with their American counterparts.
US officials said that working-level consultations had been established with Beijing on especially sensitive topics like arms control and maritime issues.
Sources familiar with those efforts say that Washington has seen signs in recent months that the Chinese are beginning to accept the wisdom of both countries working together to strengthen their lines of communication and mitigate misunderstandings.
“Now is precisely the time for high-level diplomacy,” a senior administration official said. “Intense competition requires and demands intense diplomacy to manage tensions and to prevent competition from verging into conflict or confrontation.”