While the expectations for next week’s meeting between the presidents Biden and Xi are not high, there are four points to watch, writes China analyst Ian Johnson at the website of the Council on Foreign Relations. Those are Taiwan, fentanyl, the Israel-Hamas war, and Climate actions.
In short, don’t expect huge breakthroughs. Gone are the days when presidents and premiers met Chinese leaders and came back with a briefcase full of business deals or other “deliverables.” And that’s not a bad thing. Those meetings were often empty, and many of the deals didn’t pan out—letters of intent to invest often languished, and China sometimes promised market access without delivering. Even though it’s easy to reject “empty talk,” it’s important that top leaders keep the channels of communication open.
Isn’t that true for all countries?
No, it matters more in dealing with China. The reason is that Beijing makes it hard for U.S. officials to understand who is advising Xi or what the decision-making channels are. Last year, Xi was appointed to an unprecedented third term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, a position that essentially allows him to run China indefinitely. (Earlier this year, he got a third term as president, but this is an honorific title in the Chinese political system.) Now that he’s ended term limits and has this new third term, Xi is surrounded by people who owe their allegiance to him almost exclusively. Meanwhile, people of Xi’s age—he turned seventy earlier this year— have all retired. Also worrying is that China’s foreign and defense ministers both appear to have been sacked, and the heads of the military’s prestigious Rocket Force were also purged earlier this year, two rare examples of trouble at the top. The changes make it even harder to fathom who is running the show beyond Xi and his immediate circle of loyalists.
So there’s a real possibility that Xi is surrounded by yes-men, who might not want to tell him bad news. In this context, it matters that the president of the United States can talk to him directly to explain why American perceptions of China are so negative and what the direct risks this could bring.
It’s not clear, for example, if Xi is directly aware of risky maneuvers by the Chinese military in recent weeks—notably, the buzzing of a U.S. bomber flying in international airspace. Decisions about such exercises are probably made by commanders on the ground, but they are based on guidelines issued by Beijing. Letting Xi know directly that these events are dangerous and potentially catastrophic could be useful.
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