White House Planning Face-to-face Meeting with Xi Jinping in California

Jade Gao/Pool via REUTERS
Xi Jinping attends a reception dinner at the Great Hall of the People ahead of China’s National Day in Beijing, China on September 28, 2023.

The White House has begun making plans for a November meeting in San Francisco between President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping – an attempt to stabilize the relationship between the world’s two most powerful countries, according to senior administration officials.

“It’s pretty firm” there will be a meeting, said one administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the engagement has not yet been announced formally. “We’re beginning the process” of planning, the official said.

A second senior administration official said that Biden looks forward to meeting Xi, but that “nothing has been confirmed yet.”

Plans will firm up after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi comes to Washington in the coming weeks, administration officials said.

The in-person meeting would be the first between the leaders of the two largest economies since they met on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, last November. There, both presidents emphasized the importance of face-to-face diplomacy and expressed hope they could get U.S.-China relations back on track.

But after Biden ordered the shoot-down of a Chinese spy balloon that traveled over the continental United States in February, ties frayed further.

In an effort to re-engage, four top Biden administration officials have traveled in recent months to Beijing, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and climate envoy John F. Kerry. Last month, national security adviser Jake Sullivan held two days of talks with Wang in Malta. The White House described those conversations as “candid, substantive and constructive.”

But communications between top American military officials and their counterparts in Beijing remain frozen despite repeated overtures by the American side. In March, Xi accused Washington of leading an effort by the West to implement “containment, encirclement and suppression of China” to slow its development. And last month, China’s main spy agency, the Ministry of State Security, indicated in a cryptic and unusual post on its WeChat social media page that prospects for a Xi-Biden summit would depend on the United States “show[ing] enough sincerity.” The security agency does not usually comment publicly, especially on foreign policy.

Biden, for his part, has made comments – off the cuff at fundraisers or in brief exchanges with reporters – that have irked Beijing. In June, at a fundraiser, he called Xi a “dictator” who was unaware of the spy balloon and said that the Chinese president was “very embarrassed” when it got shot down. He also noted China was having “real economic difficulties.”

Nonetheless, Biden has repeatedly indicated over the past several months that he was expecting to meet with Xi – “sometime in the future, in the near term,” he said at a news conference in June. Last month, Xi skipped the G-20 leadership summit in New Delhi, leading Biden to express disappointment. But, he added, “I am going to get to see him.”

In remarks to the U.N. General Assembly in New York last month, he emphasized his desire to “responsibly manage the competition” between the two countries to avoid conflict. “We are for de-risking,” he said, “not decoupling with China.”

China watchers have looked to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco as the setting for the meeting. For Xi to be a no-show, coming on the heels of his G-20 absence and ducking out of a speech at a summit of developing nations in August, would be a poor look, said Danny Russel, a former White House Asia aide in the Obama administration. “People will jump to the conclusion that the domestic economic and political problems are too great,” he said. “There’s a cost to him not going.”

The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Biden administration officials are proceeding with plans for a meeting at APEC. The Chinese, said the U.S. official, “want to do it.” The White House, however, has decided it will bar Hong Kong’s top government official, John Lee, from attending. Lee and 10 other Hong Kong and Chinese officials were sanctioned by Washington in 2020 after implementing a repressive national security law, imposed by officials in Beijing.

Russel, now vice president for international security and diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said the one thing both leaders have in common is a desire to stabilize ties and avoid “some international crisis or brawl” that could interfere with their domestic agendas. “But neither one of them is open to making substantial concessions,” he said. “So whatever calming effect a meeting will have will be tactical and temporary.”

Still, he added, even that would be “an improvement.”

Beijing has been pressing the United States to ease export controls on key technologies such as advanced semiconductors. Raimondo in August said she rebuffed an appeal by Chinese officials to rescind such controls, arguing that they were imposed for national security reasons. Instead, they agreed to set up a new commercial issues working group as a forum to engage on trade and investment matters.

Other expected areas of discussion between the two leaders are China’s crackdown on foreign companies following an expansion of a counterespionage law and the release of detained Americans.

Beyond differences over protectionist economic policies, America’s opioid crisis is a likely subject of tension between the two leaders. Most fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18 to 45, is made in Mexico using precursor chemicals from China.

After Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), then serving as House speaker, visited Taiwan in August 2022, Beijing announced it was freezing counternarcotics and law enforcement cooperation with Washington. The United States has pressed China to resume cooperation, while also targeting some China-based traffickers and individuals with sanctions.