WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. officials expressed hope Monday that this week’s highly anticipated face-to-face meeting between President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping will produce some concrete results, including the possible reestablishment of military communication between the two nations and a shared effort to combat illicit fentanyl trafficking.
The two leaders will meet Wednesday on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco. The Biden-Xi bilateral will be the marquee moment of the forum, which is dedicated to promoting trade, investment and economic development among nations around the Pacific Ocean.
Biden and Xi have not spoken in a year. Their last meeting was at the Group of 20 summit in Indonesia last fall. Since then, tensions between the two nations have grown following a series of events touched off by the shooting down of a Chinese spy balloon that had wafted across the U.S. earlier this year.
The frosty relationship between the two economic superpowers has global implications: China and the U.S. produce roughly 40% of the world’s goods and services.
U.S. officials have set relatively low expectations for the Biden-Xi meeting, suggesting that simply getting back to a baseline of routine communication would be a good benchmark for success. Still, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Monday there could be some movement toward shared goals, through “intense diplomacy.”
“All in all we’re looking forward to a productive meeting,” Sullivan said. “President Biden has a long history with President Xi and their conversations are direct, they’re straightforward and President Biden believes there is no substitute for leader-to-leader, face-to-face diplomacy to manage this complex relationship.”
Among those goals: the reestablishment of communications between military leaders of the two nations. U.S. military contacts with China have eroded, particularly since the pandemic, and are now almost nonexistent, even as the number of unsafe or unprofessional incidents between the two nations’ ships and aircraft have spiked.
The U.S. has consistently viewed military relations with China as critical to avoiding any missteps and to maintaining a peaceful Indo-Pacific region. They became even more important as China stepped up its efforts to aggressively militarize manmade islands in the Pacific as part of a broader campaign to control the South China Sea, including international transit by other ships and aircraft.
China has also long complained about U.S. Navy and Air Force movements in the western Pacific, along with other U.S. moves to impose sanctions and other economic restrictions. Canceling military talks is viewed by China as a way to punish Washington.
But there are small signs of progress. China’s defense ministry last week said the two militaries held a conference call on the search for the remains of American prisoners of war and missing personnel, discussing case investigations and cooperation on military archives.
Sullivan also said there were other areas where U.S. and Chinese interests overlap, particularly on the effort to combat fentanyl trafficking.
The powerful opioid is the deadliest drug in the U.S. today. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that drug overdose deaths have increased more than sevenfold from 2015 to 2021.
Mexico and China are the primary sources for fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances trafficked directly into the U.S., according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, which is tasked with combating illicit drug trafficking. Nearly all the chemicals needed to make fentanyl come from China, and the drugs are then mass-produced in Mexico and trafficked via cartels into the U.S.
Sullivan said Biden would also use the meeting to address China’s relations with Iran and Taiwan.
China has perceived American contact with Taiwan as encouragement to make the island’s decades-old de facto independence permanent. Concern about the issue is heightened as Taiwan prepares to hold presidential elections in January. Under the “One China” policy, the U.S. recognizes Beijing as the government of China and doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but it has maintained that Taipei is an important partner in the Indo-Pacific.
Sullivan said Biden would “set out a vision for peace and stability and the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
The Democratic president is also expected to let Xi know that he would like China to use its burgeoning sway over Iran to make clear that Tehran or its proxies should not take action that could lead to expansion of the Israel-Hamas war. The Biden administration sees the Chinese, a big buyer of Iranian oil, as having considerable leverage with Iran, which is a major backer of Hamas.
“President Biden will make the point to President Xi that Iran acting in an escalatory, destabilizing way that undermines stability across the broader Middle East is not in the interests” of China or “any other responsible country,” Sullivan said.
The White House announced Monday that Biden would also meet with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador later this week. The two leaders will discuss the growing migration issue at the U.S.-Mexico border and beyond.
Preparations for the summit are evident around San Francisco.
The city has erected tall steel barricades downtown that snake around the streets surrounding the Moscone Center and other venues where APEC events will be held this week. Finance and diplomatic leaders from the 21 APEC economies are also gathering this week; Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen opened the finance ministers meeting Monday.
The San Francisco Police Department has beefed up patrols throughout downtown. In the area around Union Square, where many summit dignitaries have booked up the city’s four-star hotels, locals have taken note that the city’s significant homeless population seems less prevalent than usual.
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