Biden’s meeting with Xi on Wednesday is the main event of his four-day visit to San Francisco.
SAN FRANCISCO — President Joe Biden said on the eve of his much-anticipated meeting with China’s Xi Jinping that his goal for the talks is simply to try to get U.S.-Chinese communications back on stable ground after a tumultuous year.
Biden said Tuesday shortly before departing for San Francisco to meet Xi and attend this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum that the nations must get “on a normal course corresponding” once again even as they have sharp differences on no shortage of issues.
“Being able to pick up the phone and talk to one another if there’s a crisis. Being able to make sure our militaries still have contact with one another,” Biden told reporters at the White House. “We’re not trying to decouple from China, but what we’re trying to do is change the relationship for the better.”
The long complicated U.S.-Chinese relationship has come under heavy strain over the last year, with Beijing bristling over new U.S. export controls on advanced technology; Biden ordering the shooting down of a Chinese spy balloon after it traversed the continental United States; and Chinese anger over a stopover in the U.S. by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen earlier this year, among other issues. China claims the island as its territory.
Chinese state media that Xi had departed earlier Tuesday to make his way to San Francisco.
Biden will also be looking to use this week’s summit of Asia-Pacific leaders to show world leaders the United States has the gumption, attention span and money to focus on the region even as it grapples with a multitude of foreign and domestic policy crises.
Biden’s meeting with Xi on Wednesday is the main event of his four-day visit to San Francisco, where leaders from the 21 economies that make up APEC are gathering for their annual summit. The White House wants to demonstrate to APEC’s leaders that Biden can remain focused on the Pacific while also trying to keep the Israel-Hamas war from exploding into a broader regional conflict and to persuade Republican lawmakers to continue to spend billions more on the costly Ukrainian effort to repel Russia’s nearly 21-month old invasion.
“President Biden this coming week will be doing a lot more than just meeting with President Xi,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters in Washington on Monday. He added that Biden would put forward his economic vision for the region, make the case that the U.S. is “the very eminent driver” for sustainable economic growth in the Asia-Pacific, and hold the region out as critical to U.S. economic growth.
White House officials say they are cognizant that fellow APEC nations want to see better dialogue between the U.S. and China because it reduces the risk of regional conflict. At the same time, they also know that others in the region are concerned that the Pacific is too often seen through a prism in which the dominant power centers in Washington and Beijing make decisions for the region without engagement from less powerful nations.
To that end, the White House is expected to unveil new initiatives to advance clean economy investments and develop anti-corruption and taxation policies through its Indo-Pacific Economic Forum, an economic strategy announced last year aimed at countering Beijing’s commercial strength in the region.
The strategy, known by the acronym IPEF, was designed to foster trade and demonstrate American commitment to the region, after then-President Donald Trump announced in 2017 that the U.S. was withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, an Obama-era trade deal with 12 countries.
“The U.S. is really aiming to use APEC as a way to demonstrate its lasting economic commitment to the region overall,” said Neils Graham, associate director for the Atlantic Council GeoEconomics Center.
Much of the APEC’s membership is “tepid, at best” on IPEF, said Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. While TPP fell apart under Trump, the region has seen major trade deals sealed in recent years involving China, Japan, South Korea and other major regional economies. APEC members have some interest in aspects of IPEF, such as efforts aimed at bolstering supply chain resilience and the clean energy economy, but want to see Biden create further access to U.S. markets.
Biden during his presidency has declined to pursue new comprehensive free-trade agreements with other countries. Administration officials quietly argue that while such pacts promote global commerce they are viewed suspiciously by Americans and some in Congress as a vehicle for sending factory jobs overseas.
Biden on Monday welcomed Indonesian President Joko Widodo, a fellow APEC leader, to the White House for talks before both travel to San Francisco. The Oval Office visit came at a somewhat awkward moment as Widodo, the leader of the world’s most populous Muslim country, has been fiercely critical of Israel’s operations in the Gaza Strip.
Biden, meanwhile, has been unapologetic in standing staunchly by Israel and backing its right to defend itself following the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas militants that left 1,200 dead. Israel’s retaliatory operations in Gaza have killed more than 11,000, sparking outrage from a slew of world leaders. The Indonesian president, in a speech at Georgetown University on Monday, lamented that “human life seems meaningless” as Israel prosecutes its operations.
Their differences on the Israel-Hamas war notwithstanding, Biden made clear during his sit-down with Widodo that he’s looking to improve ties with the Southeast Asian power on combating the climate crisis and other issues.
The White House effort to herd APEC members to sign on to a summit-concluding joint declaration, a fixture at most international summits, could be complicated by diverging views among members on the Israel-Hamas and Ukraine wars.
“We’re certainly working for having a strong consensus statement in APEC, for the leaders to be able to release at the end of the week,” said Ambassador Matt Murray, the senior U.S. official for APEC.
Among close allies expected to be in San Francisco are Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr.
Historically frosty relations between South Korea and Japan have rapidly thawed over the last year as they share concerns about China’s assertiveness in the Pacific and North Korea’s persistent nuclear threats.
Biden is expected to remind Xi about the U.S. commitment to the Philippines, following a recent episode in which Chinese ships blocked and collided with two Philippine vessels off a contested shoal in the South China Sea, according to a senior administration who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview some of Biden’s agenda.
The Philippines and other neighbors of China are resisting Beijing’s sweeping territorial claims over virtually the entire sea.
Biden enters the Xi meeting feeling buoyed by the U.S. economy’s strong performance. While the majority of U.S. adults believe the economy is weak, Biden has managed to prove wrong a large swath of economists who predicted that millions of layoffs and a recession might be needed to bring down inflation. The Labor Department said Tuesday that consumer prices rose at an annual pace of 3.2% annually, down from a June 2022 peak of 9.1%. Meanwhile, employers keep hiring and the unemployment rate has held below 4% for nearly two years.
Biden also noted that China is “in trouble right now economically.”
Beijing released economic data last month that shows prices falling due to slack demand from consumers and businesses. The International Monetary Fund recently cut growth forecasts for China, predicting economic growth of 5% this year and 4.2% in 2024, down slightly from its forecasts in July.