It was 1985 and a fresh-faced Xi Jinping’s first trip to the U.S. (or anywhere outside of China, so it’s believed.) Wearing a brown jacket over gray pullover, necktie tidily knotted, the then 31-year-old princeling flashes a carefree grin for the camera in front of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, a pose replicated by countless beguiled tourists both before and since.
Young president Xi Jinping,
then CPC party Chief of Zhengding Country,
in San Francisco, 1985.
Chinese president Xi will be meeting for the APEC forum and meeting Biden in San Francisco next week. pic.twitter.com/xwEaHO0pJn
— China in Pictures (@tongbingxue) November 10, 2023
Back then, Xi was a junior Chinese official leading a delegation to the U.S. to study modern agriculture techniques. Xi visited the U.S. four more times before he assumed China’s leadership in late 2012, and has returned four times since, most recently sharing chocolate cake with former President Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago in 2017. At that meeting, Trump hailed the “great chemistry” between the leaders and foresaw “lots of very potentially bad problems will be going away.”
As predictions go, it wasn’t one of Trump’s best, and relations between the world’s top two economies have spiraled in the six years since. Changing that trajectory will be top of the agenda when Xi returns to San Francisco on Tuesday for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, with a bilateral meeting with President Joe Biden set for Wednesday.
“The two heads-of-state will have in-depth communication on strategic, general and directional issues concerning China-U.S. relations, as well as major issues concerning global peace and development,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning told a regular briefing on Monday.
The stakes are high for both sides. The moderate thaw achieved following a summit between Xi and Biden in Bali last November returned to deep freeze by February when the U.S. shot down an alleged Chinese spy balloon. Today, Washington has blocked the sale of high-tech components to China, ramped up arms sales to Taiwan, and has backed the Philippines over fresh skirmishes with the People Liberation Army (PLA) in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, China’s economy is mired in a severe downturn, with youth unemployment at 46.5%, by some estimates, while the world’s top trading nation again veered into deflation in October. One measure of foreign direct investment into China fell negative in the third quarter of 2023 for the first time on record.
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Against this backdrop, one can forgive Xi if he struggles to summon the same blithe cheer visible in that almost four-decade-old photo. He desperately needs to reduce pressure on China’s ailing economy and will seek assurances over the status of Taiwan, the self-governing island of 23 million that Beijing claims as its own. Biden, in turn, could do with a big foreign policy win with the U.S. presidential election less than a year away. He will be keen for Chinese help to resolve the conflicts in Ukraine and Israel as well as reestablishing de-escalation mechanisms between both sides’ armed forces.
Following the visit of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in August 2022, military-to-military communications between the superpowers have largely ceased, with a series of recent near-misses between the nations’ vessels and aircraft. Biden “is determined to see the reestablishment of military-to-military ties,” his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told CBS on Sunday, saying it was “in the U.S. national security interest.”
However, Chinese analysts say that Washington is not walking the talk. Zhou Bo, a retired PLA senior colonel and senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University, points out that no senior U.S. military official attended last month’s Xiangshan Forum on regional security in Beijing. “I believe the U.S. missed a very good opportunity because the Chinese side extended invitations,” he tells TIME.
And while the U.S. will reemphasize it seeks no change to the status quo in Taiwan, August’s announcement of $500 million of new weapons sales, following Congress’s passing in May of a historic trade deal with Taiwan, makes this a tough sell in Beijing. Concern about Taiwan is heightened as the island prepares to hold presidential elections in January, with polls indicating the Beijing-skeptic Democratic Progressive Party is on course for an unprecedented third straight term.
The question is what both sides are willing to put on the negotiating table. Early reports are that a deal to curb the flow of deadly fentanyl from China to the U.S. is close to being agreed. Beijing has also demanded rollbacks in tariffs and sanctions but might have to settle for assurances the U.S. will not inflict new ones instead.
Most pressingly, Biden will want Xi to leverage his influence in Tehran—China is the top buyer of Iranian oil—to ensure its proxies do not expand the Israel-Hamas war. Xi has already telegraphed his peace-building ambitions by negotiating a truce between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and any progress on peace in Ukraine and Israel—while admittedly a quixotic proposition—would be a huge win for both sides. What concessions Washington is willing to pony up is the big question.
“Beijing is trying to position itself as a security player globally,” says Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University and author of Upstart: How China Became a Great Power. “Xi Jinping will want to move beyond just discussing regional issues to make some stronger statements about global issues as well.”
Write to Charlie Campbell at email@example.com.