SAN FRANCISCO — Against the backdrop of two wars and a federal government funding fight, President Joe Biden is about to sit down with Chinese President Xi Jinping for the first time since a Chinese spy balloon traversed the country.
But as the White House tries to be diplomatic as it attempts to manage expectations regarding the meeting, Biden is under pressure to talk tough with his Chinese counterpart when the leaders come face to face Wednesday in San Francisco on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
David Stilwell, a Trump State Department official, implored Biden to keep China “an icebox” as the White House appeals to Xi to work together on areas of common interest. The former assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs disputed Biden’s assumption that having “face-to-face talks,” particularly between the U.S. and Chinese militaries, will prevent “things from spiraling out of control.”
“I know I sound like a hawk, but we’ve been doing this for 23 straight years,” Stilwell told the Washington Examiner. “Every time there’s a new administration or a new interlocutor, someone says, ‘OK, I’d like to make friends with these guys,’ you know, ‘I’m the guy who’s going to solve this problem.’ And that has yet to work out.”
“The only way that’s working is when you play hardball with them. They definitely understand hardball. I like to think that during the Trump time, we were capable of doing it,” he said. “What has being nice to them gotten us?… I would go with Nancy Reagan’s ‘Just say no’ until they come up with a proposal to address our issues, which they have yet to do.”
Meanwhile, Matthew Goodman, director of the Council of Foreign Relations’s Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies, contended there is “no more important meeting” than a U.S.-China sit-down, regardless of who the leaders are. The United States and China are “the two biggest economies in the world” and have “lots of challenges” amid Russia‘s invasion of Ukraine and Israel‘s war with Hamas, according to Goodman.
“He may get criticism just for doing the work of a president and trying to maintain a stable international environment,” he said. “I’m not naive. I know there are generally critical coin slots for the president for various things, but I don’t think this meeting particularly exacerbates any of that.”
Goodman “imagined” that Biden may “subtly highlight” that the U.S. is “doing pretty well” economically and China’s “not doing as well.” Goodman’s colleague Ian Johnson, CFR’s China senior fellow, agreed China’s negative economic outlook and Xi’s own domestic “political turmoil” have changed the leaders’ power dynamic to Biden’s advantage despite Xi’s unprecedented third five-year term as president.
“Xi Jinping needs to focus on the domestic situation and does not need to be engaged in some sort of dispute or conflict with the most powerful country of the world,” he said. “[The meeting] is all, I think, part and parcel of this, of this effort to focus on righting the economic ship and avoiding unnecessary conflict.”
Johnson downplayed the substantive importance of the Biden-Xi meeting, underscoring, instead, its symbolic significance after China’s outrage over former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi‘s (D-CA) trip last year to Taiwan and last spring’s Chinese spy balloon incident. Johnson predicted Taiwan would dominate the agenda before the island’s elections next year, with Xi likely seeking clarification concerning Biden’s policies related to the incumbent pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party over its opposition.
The White House and Biden have similarly downplayed the meeting in terms of its deliverables, besides announcements concerning the resumption of military-to-military communications, fentanyl, artificial intelligence, and nuclear arms control.
“To get back on a normal course of corresponding, being able to pick up the phone and talk to one another if there’s a crisis, being able to make sure our military still have contact with one another,” Biden told reporters at the White House on Tuesday before departing for the West Coast.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan previewed Monday that Biden would also promote “his economic vision for the region,” the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which has been complicated by disagreements over digital trade, in between hosting events for the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, in addition to CEOs.
“President Biden comes into this summit on a solid footing given the ways in which he has positioned the United States to be able to compete effectively both at home and around the world,” he told reporters. “All in all, we’re looking forward to a productive meeting.”
Biden and Xi last met this time last year for more than three hours on the sidelines of the Group of 20 leaders summit in Bali, Indonesia.