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Biden and Xi are meeting for the first time in a year. Here are 5 things to watch

President Biden greets China's leader Xi Jinping at the Filoli Estate in Woodside, Calif., on Nov. 15.
Doug Mills
President Biden greets China's leader Xi Jinping at the Filoli Estate in Woodside, Calif., on Nov. 15.

Updated November 15, 2023 at 2:41 PM ET

WOODSIDE, Calif. — President Biden is meeting China's leader Xi Jinping at the historic Filoli estate outside of San Francisco on Wednesday for talks aimed at injecting some stability into rocky bilateral relations.

Biden told Xi at the start of their talks that their past meetings had always been "straightforward, candid and useful" even when they don't agree. "We have to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict," he said at the beginning of talks.

Xi told Biden that the U.S.-China relationship is "the most important bilateral relationship in the world" and noted that the global economy is still "sluggish" after the COVID pandemic. "Protectionism is rising," Xi said.

The meeting is expected to last for several hours, according to people familiar with the planning. Afterward, Biden will hold a solo press conference, while Xi dines with American business leaders.

The last time Xi visited the United States was in 2017. Back then, trade friction was heating up between the U.S. and China but had not yet become a full-blown trade war. Former President Donald Trump touted "great chemistry" with Xi.

Biden, by contrast, has vowed to "vigorously" compete with China since his inauguration in 2021. The two leaders met for the first time as presidents a year ago in Indonesia. But since then, the bilateral relationship has been on a roller coaster, especially after the alleged "spy balloon" incident earlier this year.

Wednesday's talks in the San Francisco Bay Area have drawn much attention from countries around the world. Here are the five things NPR reporters are closely tracking:

Military-to-military talks

U.S.-China communication on military issues took a hit after former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's high-profile visit to Taiwan last year. China swiftly suspended most senior military-to-military dialogue in protest. The lack of exchanges has prompted analysts to warn of a potential miscalculation in areas such as the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait.

Lyle Goldstein, director of Asia engagement at the think-tank Defense Priorities, says more direct communication would help in the event of a crisis, and also provide ballast over the longer term.

"I've seen how these top U.S. military leaders, when they have some exposure to China, it kind of it has an effect on how they view the situation and they become kind of more moderate, I think, partly because they have to put in the time talking to these people face to face," he said.

"And I think it goes the other way, too. So this interaction is crucial."

Analysts say sustained dialogue and lines of communication that stay open in times of tension are the best way forward.

The "Taiwan question"

Taiwan is self-governed but Beijing considers it as part of China and has vowed to "reunify" Taiwan with the mainland. This has long been a key issue between the U.S. and China. Although Xi has not publicly laid out a timeline for this attempted "reunification," analysts from both sides of the Pacific have chimed in with their own guesses in the last few years.

In their previous meetings — in-person or virtual — Xi had warned his American counterpart not to "play with fire" over Taiwan, which is self-governed but Beijing considers as part of China. Biden, however, has repeatedly said that the United States would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion — comments administration officials have later walked back.

Wednesday's discussion on Taiwan is expected to be equally heated. In the lead-up to Taiwan's January presidential election, Beijing will be watching carefully — and nervously — the words and deeds from Washington.

Russia's war in Ukraine and the Middle East conflict

These are the elephants in the room.

Since last February, China's stance on the Russia-Ukraine war has drawn sharp criticism in the U.S. Despite claiming to be neutral, Xi's remarks to Russian President Vladimir Putin on his visit to Moscow earlier this year seemed to reflect his view of the current international dynamics. "Right now there are changes — the likes of which we haven't seen for 100 years — and we are the ones driving these changes together," he was filmed as saying when bidding farewell to Putin in March.

China claims to be neutral in the Israel-Hamas war, although the Biden administration sees Beijing as having some potential influence over how the next stage of the conflict develops — particularly in Beijing's relations with Iran, a major supporter of the Hamas militant group that rules the Gaza Strip.

"President Biden will make the point to President Xi that Iran acting in an escalatory, destabilizing way that undermines stability across the broader Middle East is not in the interests of the PRC or of any other responsible country," Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said on Monday, using the initials for the People's Republic of China.

Trade, people-to-people exchanges, and fentanyl

Both sides have set the expectations low, but analysts are watching keenly on what's to be said and agreed on over the course of this week when the Chinese leader is in town. They range from export controls to tariffs and sanctions.

On Wednesday, Xi is expected to address a dinner attended by U.S. business executives in San Francisco — a move some analysts say reflects his desire to lure American businesses back in the Chinese market.

Among the guests are his "old friends" from Iowa, where the younger Xi spent a short period of time as an exchange official from China. That was 38 years ago, but analysts say the gesture echoes Xi's recent framing on the bilateral relationship: that people-to-people exchanges between the two nations is the foundation.

"Over the years, notwithstanding setbacks in China-U.S. relations, Xi has consistently championed people-to-people exchanges with the United States," writes Xinhua, the Communist Party's official news outlet, on Monday, in an editorial.

But there may be more consequential deliverables analysts are watching this week. China's role as a supplier of precursor chemicals used by Mexican drug cartels to make fentanyl has shot to the top of the list of issues the Biden administration is concerned about. The U.S. has been pushing for more action on the part of the Chinese government, and Sullivan said the administration was hoping to see progress this week.

Domestic politics in both countries matter, too

A year ago when they met, the wind was at both of their backs. Xi had just engineered a norm-bending third term as Communist Party boss, and stacked the policy-making Politburo with allies.

In the U.S., midterm election wins for the Democratic Party in 2022, and the lack of an expected Republican "red wave," validated the Biden agenda just days before meeting Xi. Biden said at the time that the midterms had sent a message around the world that the U.S. would remain fully engaged in global affairs.

This time, there seems to be less for both men to crow about.

Xi ended COVID-19 controls not long after the Bali meeting, but only after a rash of public protests in cities around the country highlighted not only unhappiness with the government's heavy-handed pandemic policies, but also general concerns about the country's direction.

A study this year said the subsequent rapid spread of the coronavirus after the "dynamic zero-COVID" policy may have led to 2 million excess deaths.

On top of that, the Chinese economy has been struggling mightily this year and seems unlikely to hit the official target of "around 5%." Investment has slumped, and consumer confidence has plummeted.

For Biden, his polling is troubling. Only 39% of Americans approve of him, according to a Reuters/Ipsos survey earlier this month. Several recent polls show former president and Republican front-runner Trump beating Biden in a presidential faceoff next year.

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Vincent Ni
Vincent Ni is the Asia Editor at NPR, where he leads a team of Asia-based correspondents whose reporting spans from Afghanistan to Japan, and across all NPR platforms.
John Ruwitch
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.