Expectations are low for the meeting between President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping that will take place Wednesday in San Francisco during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that Biden officials have said one potential agreement that might be made is to resume military-to-military communication channels that were suspended in the wake of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s provocative trip to Taiwan in August 2022.
But even the increase in military dialogue is not guaranteed. The US has previously framed its efforts to restore the communication channels as “guard rails” to manage the frequent encounters between the two militaries in the South China Sea and near Taiwan. From Beijing’s perspective, the US effort to establish guard rails will normalize the increasing US military presence in the region.
The South China Morning Post reported that when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Washington last week, he “scoffed” when asked about military-to-military guard rails, saying the best guard rail would be the US adhering to the historical commitments it made regarding Taiwan.
In recent years, the US has significantly increased military and diplomatic support for Taiwan, which China says breaks from the commitments Washington made when normalizing relations with Beijing, which became official in 1979.
China has stepped up its interceptions of US and other Western aircraft in the South China Sea to show its displeasure with the military activity. The Post quoted Dominic Chiu, a senior analyst with Eurasia Group, who asked how things would look if the roles were reversed. “If the situation were reversed, it is hard to imagine the US would be inert if China’s military operated 13 nautical miles off the coast of Los Angeles on a daily basis,” he said.
A major impediment to US-China military talks was US sanctions on Li Shangfu, who was China’s defense minister until he was fired last month. China had rejected a meeting between Li and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin earlier this year over the sanctions, which the US refused to lift despite its claim that it wanted to foster dialogue with Beijing. China’s defense minister position is currently vacant, and it’s unclear if Li’s removal will pave the way for a high-level meeting.
According to POLITICO, Biden plans to press Xi on China’s relationship with Iran amid the current tensions in the Middle East, where Iran-aligned militias have been frequently targeting US troops in Syria and Iraq due to US support for Israel’s war in Gaza. US officials said Biden will ask Xi to use his influence to prevent Iran and its allies from escalating the Gaza war into a regional conflict, a request that will likely add to the tensions at the meeting.
Kurt Campbell, the top Asia official on the National Security Council and nominee to be deputy secretary of state, has signaled that Biden will take a hardline stance with Xi. He said the best thing for the US to do with the summit is “make clear and to demonstrate to the Chinese that we still have staying power, that we are still the most powerful country, and we are still committed to our larger purpose in the Indo-Pacific.”
Beijing views the US efforts to build up its military and alliances in the Indo-Pacific as a policy of containment aimed at China, which Xi made clear in comments earlier this year. “Western countries led by the US have implemented comprehensive containment, encirclement and suppression against us, bringing unprecedented severe challenges to our country’s development,” Xi said in March.