A highly anticipated meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in San Francisco this week will focus on strengthening communication amid escalating global conflicts and addressing overlapping interests like the illegal flow of fentanyl, the White House said Monday.
Wednesday’s face-to-face meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit will be the first between Biden and Xi in a year, and is aimed at curbing tensions between the two superpowers.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters the U.S. is seeking “specific outcomes” from the meeting, and while he wouldn’t list them, he did provide some clues.
“We believe that there are areas where our interests overlap, like our efforts to combat the illicit fentanyl trade,” Sullivan said.
“There are also areas where we can more effectively manage competition — for example, by re-establishing military-to-military communications. And there are, of course, critical global issues that the two leaders will need to discuss, including Russia’s war against Ukraine and the evolving crisis in the Middle East.”
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China cut off military-to-military communications with the U.S. last year after a visit to Taiwan, a democratically-governed island China claims as it own, by then-U.S. House speaker Nancy Pelosi. Tense relations soured further when the U.S. shot down a Chinese spy balloon that flew over North America in February.
During the balloon incident — which the Pentagon has said did not result in Beijing collecting any sensitive data — the U.S. was unable to get in contact with the Chinese military.
China has denied it intentionally flew a surveillance balloon over the U.S., insisting it was a weather device that blew off course.
Sullivan said communication between the U.S. and Chinese militaries was the way to ensure competition did not veer into conflict and that China had been “constructive” on the issue in dialogue leading up to the summit.
“We will see what happens in San Francisco and the president will be able to report after the meeting, whether in fact, we’ve made progress on restoring military-to-military links,” he said.
The meeting is also expected to cover global issues from the Israel-Hamas conflict to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, North Korea’s ties with Russia, Taiwan, human rights, artificial intelligence, as well as “fair” trade and economic relations, senior Biden administration officials said.
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Sullivan said Biden would raise the issue of stability across the Middle East, adding that Beijing should share an interest in de-escalation there.
Biden would make the point that Iran acting in an “escalatory, destabilizing way” was not in the interests of China, he said. “And the PRC, of course, has a relationship with Iran, and it’s capable, if it chooses, to of making those points directly to the Iranian government.”
Sullivan was less candid when asked how Biden would address the issue of Taiwan with Xi. While the U.S. does not formally recognize Taiwanese statehood, the Biden administration has increased its military and diplomatic support to Taiwan as it seeks independence from Beijing, which has publicly suggested it may retake the island by force.
Biden will “set out a vision” for achieving and maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait during his meeting with Xi, Sullivan said. He declined to get into specifics, including when asked if Biden will urge Xi to not interfere in Taiwan’s upcoming presidential election in January.
Fentanyl a ‘critical’ concern
The White House would not say what specific outcome it hopes to achieve on the issue of fentanyl, only acknowledging it was a “critical” one to address.
“We are certainly focused on making sure that we protect Americans and American families, so obviously this is an important agenda item the president wants to have,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters at the same briefing.
More than 100,000 deaths a year have been linked to drug overdoses since 2020 and about two-thirds of those are related to fentanyl, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says Mexico and China are the primary sources for fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances trafficked directly into the U.S. Nearly all the precursor chemicals that are needed to make fentanyl come from China.
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Last month, the Biden administration announced a series of indictments and sanctions against Chinese companies and executives blamed for importing those chemicals. It also launched a government-wide effort to crack down on fentanyl supply chains, including targeting the shipments of legal goods like pill presses, moulds and chemicals used to make fentanyl and other illicit synthetic drugs.
Biden and Xi have known each other for more than a decade and have shared hours of conversation over six interactions since Biden’s 2021 inauguration.
However, they have met only once in person since then and Xi has not visited the United States since 2017.
China’s foreign ministry says it expects the two leaders to have “in-depth communication on issues of strategic, overarching and fundamental importance” for both bilateral ties and the wider globe, but added Monday it is not seeking conflict.
“China does not fear competition, but we do not agree that China-US relations should be defined by competition,” spokesperson Mao Ning told reporters in Beijing, according to a transcript.
“We hope the U.S. will act on its commitment of not seeking a new Cold War with China and having no intention to seek a conflict with China, and work with China to bring bilateral relations back to the track of sound and stable development.”
Leaders from the 21-member APEC forum are due to gather in San Francisco from Wednesday until Friday.
Sullivan said that at APEC Biden would put forward his economic vision for the region and speak about “how the United States is the preeminent driver of inclusive, sustainable economic growth in the Asia Pacific.”
—with files from the Associated Press and Reuters