But recent U.S. actions on those same issues — from President Biden’s recent pledge of a U.S. military defense of Taiwan if China were to invade, to export controls on semiconductors needed for next-generation weapons systems — are angering China to the point where it is considering backing out.
“Normally, when you have a presidential bilat you start working out the agenda quite a while in advance, but Chinese diplomats are saying, ‘You guys whack us every other day — if that is the environment, how can we expect a positive outcome from a Xi-Biden meeting?’” a person briefed by Chinese officials on the planning told POLITICO.
“If they can’t have a positive outcome, their view is ‘should we even have the meeting?’” the person said. The individual was granted anonymity to prevent possible reprisals for speaking publicly about the bilateral spat.
The Chinese embassy didn’t respond to a request for comment. The White House denied any problems in negotiating the planned Biden-Xi meeting.
“This story is 100 percent false,” the National Security Council’s top spokesperson, Adrienne Watson, said in an email. “We’ve already said the two presidents tasked out their teams to look into a meeting. I won’t get beyond that though in terms of timing and location as of now.”
Preparations for a possible Biden-Xi meeting began months ago. The White House announced in July following Biden’s most recent call with Xi that both sides had agreed on “the value of meeting face to face” and would determine a “mutually agreeable time to do so.” China’s foreign ministry dispatched a delegation to Indonesia in August to prepare for the meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 in Bali.
But with only a month until the G-20 meeting opens in Bali, uncertainty about whether Biden will get a one-on-one meeting with Xi is becoming a diplomatic cliffhanger. “It is still not confirmed,” said a Washington-based diplomat familiar with the event’s planning. The diplomat was granted anonymity because he isn’t authorized to speak to the media.
The meeting is key to the Biden administration effort — outlined in this week’s National Security Strategy — to find ways to cooperate with China in areas like climate change at the same time that it hammers the country with export restrictions and mobilizes allies to counter China’s increasingly aggressive moves in the Indo-Pacific.
China so far hasn’t been up for that kind of frenemy. After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit in August, China began regularly flying fighter jets across the halfway point in the waters between China and the self-governing island, and cut off cooperation with the U.S. in areas including counternarcotics and addressing the climate crisis.
The U.S. has responded in kind. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved legislation in September to boost Taiwan’s ability to defend itself against a potential Chinese invasion. And in just the past week the administration restricted semiconductor exports to China, issued a National Security Strategy that painted China as one of the biggest threats to U.S. security and warned China may pursue “weaponization of trade as a tool of geopolitical coercion.”
Beijing has been particularly roiled by that National Security Strategy, embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu said in a statement Thursday.
“The China-related content of the U.S. National Security Strategy hypes up major-power competition, zero-sum game and ideological confrontation,” he wrote. “The sole purpose is to contain and suppress China’s development and maintain the U.S. hegemony.”
That anger is heightening Chinese government skepticism about the utility of a Xi-Biden in-person meeting, but hasn’t yet completely scuppered it, said John Kamm, whose role as the founder of the nonprofit Dui Hua Foundation provides him regular access to Chinese diplomats.
“Based on soundings with Chinese officials, a meeting is expected but details haven’t been agreed to,” Kamm said. “They are wary of more surprises like the semiconductor decision, about which they are furious.”
Still, Beijing’s delays could just be a way to needle the administration ahead of formalizing the meeting, said Craig Singleton, senior China fellow at the nonprofit Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Right now, the Biden administration appears more eager for this meeting than Beijing, so China has little incentive to agree to one on either Washington’s terms or timetable,” Singleton said. “Better instead to make the White House sweat, even if for only a few more weeks.”
The Chinese government’s reluctance to finalize a meeting agenda may also reflect Beijing’s desire to delay confirmation of major diplomatic outreach until the conclusion of the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Party Congress. The Congress, which opens on Sunday, will likely deliver Xi a five-year extension as CCP General Secretary and pave the way for possible ruler-for-life status.
“We’ll know more when the 20th Party Congress ends, but if [Chinese officials] still keep dissing us, that’s serious,” said the person briefed by Chinese officials on the Xi-Biden meeting planning.
But both leaders will likely have an opportunity for in-person discussions in Bali regardless of whether they have a formal meeting agenda.
“They’re going to be in the same room for at least 36 hours … they’re not going to ignore each other and glare at each other over the table,” said Craig Allen, president of the U.S.-China Business Council. “Semiconductors are important, but they’re going to find a way to communicate.”