What It Took to Get Biden and Xi to the Table | Mint

What It Took to Get Biden and Xi to the Table

China’s Xi Jinping and President Biden met on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit last November in Indonesia. ALEX BRANDON/ASSOCIATED PRESS
China’s Xi Jinping and President Biden met on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit last November in Indonesia. ALEX BRANDON/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Summary

The path to a U.S.-China summit was strewn with gamesmanship.

With only weeks to go to prepare for a possible summit with President Biden, Chinese officials floated a plan: If Xi Jinping agrees to meet, he first wants to sit down for a banquet with American business leaders.

The White House said no. With a lengthy agenda of friction points to go over, Xi should see Biden first before the CEOs, American officials told their Chinese counterparts last month, according to people briefed on the plans. Beijing backed down and rescheduled the dinner for after the summit.

Biden and Xi are set to hold their first face-to-face meeting in a year in the San Francisco Bay Area on Wednesday, with both saying they want to mend a divisive, rivalrous U.S.-China relationship. To get to the table, both sides have resorted to maneuvers that appear aimed at putting the other side off balance.

The path to the summit has been strewn with diplomatic slights and gamesmanship, according to interviews with current and former officials on both sides, foreign-affairs specialists and others briefed on summit discussions. There have been snubs, skipped meetings and the withholding of goodwill gestures.

“Every time we have a summit with China, both sides discuss who’s in a stronger position," said Bonnie Glaser, who runs the Indo-Pacific program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “It’s going on on both sides."

Xi, for example, declined for weeks to take a phone call from Biden, who said publicly that he wanted to talk to the Chinese leader after the U.S. shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon, a move that shocked Beijing.

The two leaders haven’t spoken since the balloon incident, which derailed a planned visit to Beijing by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

By the time Blinken traveled to Beijing for a reset in June, he managed to win an audience with Xi. But he was made to look like a supplicant in Chinese state media, seated off to the side of a long table in the Great Hall of the People, rather than being placed next to Xi, as Blinken’s predecessor was.

Around the time of Blinken’s trip, Chinese hackers breached the unclassified email accounts of top Blinken aides and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, U.S. officials said.

The petty brush-offs and hardball tactics on display ahead of the high-stakes summit strain the goodwill needed to resolve global troubles and seed the U.S.-China relationship with distrust.

Wednesday’s meeting isn’t expected to resolve the adversarial trajectory Washington and Beijing are on as they vie to reshape the global order.

Domestic politics complicate any detente. The Biden administration has engaged with Beijing while looking over its shoulder to avoid criticism from Republicans and other China skeptics in Congress, officials said. For Xi, who has made it clear that he sees China as an equal to the U.S., being regarded as too eager for engagement would hurt the strongman image he has systematically cultivated at home.

Both Biden and Xi have an interest in keeping the rivalry from careering into conflict. U.S. allies from Europe to Australia, which are central to the Biden administration’s strategy to hold China in check, also want Washington to manage tensions with Beijing.

The administration appears likely to achieve some substantive wins at the meeting. Both governments are moving closer to resuming contacts between their militaries, which Beijing suspended last year in anger over displays of U.S. support for Taiwan, according to U.S. officials. They have discussed cooperating on ending fentanyl trafficking, with China being the source for chemicals that Mexican drug cartels use to produce the opioid.

Xi is looking for reassurances on Taiwan, with China urging the U.S. to rein in political leaders on the democratic island who are resisting Beijing’s goal of unification. A smooth summit might help Xi stave off, at least temporarily, more U.S. restrictions on technology transfers and shore up flagging foreign investor confidence in a struggling Chinese economy weighed down by debt and by his preference for state control.

More broadly, Xi is looking to buy time to build up China’s economic and military resilience to ultimately prevail in the great-power competition. The Chinese leader was taken aback by the West’s backlash to his alignment with Russia in the midst of its war on Ukraine and was surprised at how quickly the U.S. has strengthened alliances against Beijing. Now a tactical pause serves China’s interest.

In recent commentary, the Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily struck an unusually conciliatory tone about the U.S., calling for the bilateral relationship to “stabilize and improve instead of sliding into conflict and confrontation."

“It’s OK to be nice to the Americans now," said Evan Medeiros, a professor at Georgetown University and a former senior national security official in the Obama administration. “But it’s a cyclical warming-up amid structural deterioration in the relationship."

Both sides recognized early this year that an annual gathering of Asia-Pacific leaders in November to be hosted by the U.S. provided a convenient opportunity for a Biden-Xi summit. Their meeting is likely to be their last ahead of the U.S. presidential election next year, meaning the chance to prevent a downward spiral in relations is quickly narrowing.

Still, Beijing played hard to get and resorted to a preferred method for dealing with Americans: through elder businessmen or politicians with longstanding ties to China and perceived influence in Washington.

Beijing turned to a person it has called an old friend of China: Maurice “Hank" Greenberg, the insurance magnate who has done business in China for decades. The 98-year-old Greenberg had been expected to travel to Beijing in June to meet with Xi, according to people familiar with the planning. The Chinese side lined up ambulances, doctors and nurses to be ready for his arrival.

When Greenberg had to postpone the trip for scheduling reasons, the preparations came in handy instead for a visit by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, 100 years old, who met with Xi in Beijing in July.

A senior Chinese Foreign Ministry official finally traveled to Washington over the summer to open the way for a summit. Then, his boss, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, didn’t come for a planned September follow-up meeting.

A reason, said one U.S. official involved: “Leverage."

Aside from Blinken, Biden sent a succession of other high-level administration officials to Beijing to show that the U.S. is interested in talking. But none of them came bearing concessions on economic sanctions, technology controls or other matters—a deliberate move, officials said, which frustrated China.

When Raimondo landed in Beijing in August, the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei Technologies, blacklisted by the U.S. since 2019, showed off a new, $900-plus smartphone. Inside was a domestically made semiconductor that China hadn’t been expected to be able to create under U.S. export restrictions.

The new phone was widely seen in China as a technological triumph that demonstrated the country’s ability to overcome U.S. sanctions. Its launch, in the same week that Raimondo visited, came just a few days after Chinese Premier Li Qiang, a Xi lieutenant, met with Huawei’s founder.

Myron Brilliant, a business consultant with decades of China experience, got open-door treatment when he visited in September and came away from meetings with senior economic and foreign-policy officials with a message about a potential summit.

“The No. 1 issue is that they don’t want Biden to embarrass Xi," said Brilliant, who oversaw international affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and is now a senior counselor at Dentons Global Advisors. “I left Beijing feeling that the high-level U.S. visits had reduced tensions but hadn’t really moved the needle much substantively."

The administration was continuing to fire off actions Beijing disliked, issuing an order to stanch American investment in leading technologies in China and tightening controls on semiconductors. Such actions are a worry for Chinese summit planners because of the potential loss of face for Beijing if announced around Xi’s visit.

U.S. officials said that as much as the administration wants a summit, Chinese leaders need to see such moves as part of the two powers’ competition. “We can talk and compete," said one official. “Talking is in their interest too."

When Wang, the Chinese foreign minister, finally traveled to Washington at the end of October, concerns about more-punitive U.S. actions—an arms sale to Taiwan or sanctions on a marquee Chinese company—kept Beijing from giving unreserved approval for a summit.

“We’ve told the Americans we need a period of peace," said a Chinese official. “The Americans say, ‘How long? One week, two weeks, a month?’ "

Write to Charles Hutzler at charles.hutzler@wsj.com and Lingling Wei at Lingling.Wei@wsj.com

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