Expectations for Biden-Xi meeting are low, Northeastern expert says

President Xi Jinping (left) and President Joe Biden (right) shaking hands in front of US and Chinese flags.
The U.S. President Joe Biden, right, and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands before their meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit meeting in Nusa Dua, in Bali, Indonesia, on Nov. 14, 2022. The U.S. and Chinese leaders will meet this week while attending the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco. AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File

President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet Wednesday, a get-together that will likely be devoted to finding common ground in circumstances that have changed since the two spoke last time a year ago, a Northeastern University expert says.

Biden and Xi will meet during the 2023 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, which is taking place in San Francisco from Nov. 11 to Nov. 17 and is chaired by the U.S. president.

Headshot of Julie Garey.
Assistant teaching professor of political science Julie Garey. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

APEC is a forum of 21 countries that promotes trade, investment and economic development among nations bordering the Pacific Ocean, including China, Russia, Japan, the U.S. and Australia. This year heads of state, ministers, and diplomatic and business leaders are meeting under the theme of “Creating a Resilient and Sustainable Future for All.”

The most anticipated event of the week, however, is the Biden-Xi meeting.

The U.S. and China have a lot of goals in common both in the short and the long term, says Julie Garey, associate teaching professor of political science at Northeastern. Not many of them will be discussed by Biden and Xi, she says.

“The expectations are very low,” says Garey, an expert in international relations, U.S. foreign policy, national security and international organizations. 

“There’s a recognition that they’re not going to make a lot of progress, because they are kind of diametrically opposed in a lot of areas right now.” 

NGN spoke to Garey about the meeting and U.S. interests.

The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How would you describe the approach of the U.S. to the relations with the People’s Republic of China?

From the U.S. perspective, I think, the Biden administration very early on made China front and center to its foreign policy priorities and national security priorities. Of course, its attention has been drawn away by what’s happening in Ukraine and what’s happening in Israel and Gaza. But China is consistently in the back of the administration’s mind. 

There is a lot of evidence that suggests that President Biden sees China as a competitor, certainly, and sees it as, in some instances, an adversary on economic, military and political dimensions. So I think overall, the administration’s foreign policy goals in those areas tend to focus on reducing the amount of competition when there’s a potential to escalate towards conflict and then looking for, at the very least, coordination, maybe even cooperation in areas where there’s the potential for that.

It is really important to think about this relationship as being really multidimensional. There are many interests at play and many different levels of communication, negotiation, goals and outcomes that people want to see.

Why do you think the meeting has been arranged now?

On the U.S. side, there’s a recognition that this is an opportunity for them to have a conversation in some areas where the stakes are really quite high. The U.S. is very concerned about what China has been doing with its military, its activities in the South China Sea and toward Taiwan in particular. 

There are concerns about artificial intelligence, nuclear weapons and technology transfer. So I think, even though they are really on opposite sides on most issues and competing in some areas, conversation is better than no conversation, if it leads to a more positive outcome. 

China is also currently presiding over the U.N. Security Council [for the month of November]. It is a veto member, even if [it hasn’t used it] and it has taken less of an aggressive stance on Gaza than it did on Ukraine. The U.S. is hoping that wherever they can be unified and making progress towards peace, that it’s worth having those conversations.

What goals does the U.S. have for its relations with China?

I think the goals for the meeting tomorrow are very limited. There’s a recognition that they’re not going to make a lot of progress, because they are kind of diametrically opposed in a lot of areas right now.

First and foremost, it [the meeting] is to try to find some common ground. It’s the first time they will be speaking in a year in a slightly different setting than they met before in light of what has happened in Gaza, the continuing war in Ukraine and all these other circumstances that are outside of the bilateral relationships. 

The long-term goals for this relationship are to avoid military conflict, to continue their own economic growth and to continue being major players economically and internationally. For the U.S., that looks like China adhering more closely to the World Trade Organization guidelines and standards; not stealing intellectual property; and not putting restrictions on American companies doing business in China with regards to intellectual property; not using U.S. technologies to build military weaponry or things that could be used against the U.S. in those trade relationships; not using forced labor; and addressing their human rights abuses.

The goal is not necessarily to limit China’s economic expansion. But the administration has lots of concerns about how China is engaging other countries in its economic expansion and whether it’s doing so to the detriment of those other countries, creating additional problems. The U.S. would like to see that expansion happen in a way that doesn’t put those countries at even further disadvantage and create political or economic instability. 

What is the U.S. position on China’s suggestions regarding transformation of the current, rules-based world order?

The U.S., the Biden administration, in particular, still has full faith and confidence in this rules-based international order, liberal political systems, liberal economic systems. It is certainly concerned that alternative forms of global governance or alternative paths towards interconnectedness, interdependence and communication will be less successful.

China and others have challenged [rules-based international order], because there’s a recognition that liberal democracy hasn’t been embraced by [some] states and they’ve still had high levels of military or economic or political success. They feel like they are not well served by the liberal international order economically, not everyone gains equally in the system and some are hurt by this system. 

But the alternative that China and others are offering is not well received. It doesn’t offer viable pathways toward continued cooperation, and maybe encourages states to be more competitive than cooperative, unlike liberalism, or to be more siloed instead of integrated. 

For years the domestic criticism has been about the jobs that the U.S. companies outsourced to Chinese manufacturers. What can be done about that?

It’s true, the U.S. has shifted away from manufacturing, because the economy as a whole has shifted away from manufacturing. Now, the focus is on technology and on other areas. The CHIPS and Science Act and some of the recent initiatives that the Biden administration has undertaken is moving that way. 

The more the U.S. can look forward and present that it has a unified, strategic set of goals in terms of growing its economy, the more you could see that dialogue and that rhetoric about China’s manufacturing competition and “We’re losing jobs and our economy is suffering to China,” could die down, because the U.S. could be carving a new economic path for itself.

And China is very much thinking forward. China is not thinking, “How do we become better manufacturers of things that we were manufacturing 20 or 30 years ago.” They’re thinking, what can we do better in the future? Where do we need to be investing, where do we need to be looking? 

Alëna Kuzub is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at a.kuzub@northeastern.edu. Follow her on X/Twitter @AlenaKuzub.