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What's on the cards for Biden's first meeting with Xi Jinping since taking office


President Biden heads to Indonesia Monday. He will meet with China's Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G-20 summit with the world's largest economies. The U.S. president has not met Xi face to face in three years. NPR's John Ruwitch joins us from Shanghai. John, thanks very much for being with us.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Happy to be here.

SIMON: So I gather they've met, but Joe Biden wasn't president.

RUWITCH: Correct, yeah. And since he's been president, they've had several phone calls and videoconferences. But, you know, bilateral relations remain very tense. There is deep mistrust going in both directions. There are disputes over trade, over technology, over their general worldview that they're not really talking much about. Expectations going into this meeting are quite modest. But the hope is that face-to-face interaction will be more useful than phone calls. Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, talked to journalists onboard Air Force One yesterday on the way to Asia. And this is what he had to say.

JAKE SULLIVAN: It's not about deliverables or trying to produce some joint statement. It's about the leaders coming to a better understanding and then tasking their teams to do intensive work to come back for further engagements between the leaders.

RUWITCH: So further engagement. You know, the Chinese leadership has been very unhappy with the Biden administration's general approach, which is focused on competing with China and countering what the Biden administration sees as threats from China. So how much Xi Jinping is willing to sign on to further engagement is a big question mark.

SIMON: John, of course, the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, was in Taiwan in August. And Xi Jinping had this to say, quote, "those who play with fire will perish by it." Does that still seem to be the sentiment?

RUWITCH: Well, yeah. Taiwan is the corest of core issues for China, really. The ruling Communist Party just added a mention of it to the party charter at a Congress last month that highlights its importance to Xi Jinping. Biden said this week he wants to use this meeting to clarify the, quote-unquote, "red lines" from both sides on Taiwan and that he won't make fundamental concessions. The administration's been pretty consistent in saying U.S. does not support Taiwan independence. But Biden has said on several occasions that the United States would get involved and help Taiwan militarily in a conflict with China, which is pretty explicit. So in Beijing, there's a lot of skepticism about this. You know, Beijing believes Taiwan is part of China, wants it back. And it sees the U.S. as standing in the way. So, yeah, Xi Jinping may have some strong words.

SIMON: What about the war in Ukraine, too, and China's relationship with Russia?

RUWITCH: Ukraine will definitely come up. China is a friend of Russia's. It's been sympathetic to Moscow's rationale for invading Ukraine in the first place. But Beijing isn't in favor of the war. It's called for restraint from all sides. You know, the U.S. has tried, in the past, to get China to use its leverage, its friendship with Russia to end the war. There does seem to be a growing effort to get Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table. And I talked with a Chinese scholar about this. He declined to be identified, but he said he thinks, really, there could well be a role for China in this that overlaps with U.S. interests. You know, separately, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, said Biden also hopes that China can play sort of a similar role when it comes to North Korea, which has tested dozens of missiles in recent weeks.

SIMON: And John, there in Shanghai, what's the view from China of this meeting?

RUWITCH: You know, people aren't too optimistic. In China, the tension in the relationship between Beijing and Washington is really blamed on the United States. I had a conversation with a professor named Zhu Feng. He's with Nanjing University. And he said he thinks that Xi Jinping is going to push Biden to try to bring the relationship back to a more balanced state. But with the Republican Party potentially taking control of the House of Representatives, maybe even the Senate, he thinks Biden's maneuverability on China is really going to shrink.

ZHU FENG: There's a great deal of Taiwan sympathy among Republican hawks, so that's what I really feel very, very afraid of.

RUWITCH: He's afraid of the Taiwan sympathy because friction over Taiwan could lead to a conflict.

SIMON: NPR's Jon Ruwitch in Shanghai, thanks so much.

RUWITCH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.