Ever since their meeting in Indonesia last year, President Biden has been seeking another face-to-face with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Biden claims they are good friends and often says he believes that “foreign policy is personal.” But does Xi see Biden as a friend? Or does the Chinese leader want to take advantage of Biden’s overtures to soften U.S. policy toward Beijing? Evidence points to the latter.
At least 20 times since taking office, Biden has publicly spoken about his close bond with Xi, forged when they were both vice presidents. The version Biden told at a Maryland fundraiser in June included the claim he had spent 85 hours alone with Xi and that they had traveled some 17,000 miles together. Biden recalled one of their trips that captured the specialness of their connection.
“And we were on the Tibetan plateau on one of our meetings, and he looked at me and he said, ‘Can you define America for me?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I can, in one word: possibilities,’” Biden said.
The numbers vary in each telling, but various fact-checkers have pointed out that Biden has spent only a handful of hours with Xi and traveled with him no more than about 1,000 miles. And the pair’s visit to rural China in 2011 was not, in fact, on the Tibetan plateau. This is not to criticize Biden’s memory. The point is that Biden’s rosy view of this friendship might not be grounded in reality.
There is strong evidence that Xi isn’t as sanguine about the two men’s relationship. Take, for example, this recent New York Times review of Xi’s overlooked speeches to the Chinese military and top Chinese Communist Party officials from 2012 to 2016 — the exact time period Biden remembers so fondly.
In them, Xi reveals his true feelings about the U.S-China relationship, which included “an almost fatalistic conviction” that U.S.-China relations were destined to worsen. Xi also told his own officials the exact opposite of what he told President Barack Obama during their 2015 summit at which he promised that China would not militarize the South China Sea.
Holding out smooth relations in exchange for a more passive U.S. approach is Xi’s go-to move. Like Obama and Biden, President Donald Trump also thought he had a genuine and close friendship with Xi. “We love each other,” Trump said of the bromance early in 2020. Later, Trump blamed the downturn in their relationship on the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic.
To be fair, the basic rationale for holding the Biden-Xi meeting is sound. The two most powerful countries should be on speaking terms, especially with so many world crises ongoing. Biden administration officials assure me that the whole team — including the president — are going into Wednesday’s four-hour meeting with a healthy skepticism of any of any promises made by Xi.
“We’ve all collectively learned our lesson,” Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, told me. “Given where the relationship has been, you start with the basic premise that you are going to have a serious conversation. And we are going to do this as a confidence building measure, without any illusions.”
That framing makes sense politically. By setting very low expectations, the administration is trying to spin the meeting as a victory. There is reporting that Biden and Xi will sign an agreement to curb Chinese fentanyl precursor exports to the United States. Never mind that Xi signed a very similar agreement with Trump in 2019 but never enforced it.
Beijing reportedly might agree to resume military-to-miliary communications, after cutting them off last year to protest then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) visit to Taiwan. But having a crisis hotline between the U.S. and Chinese militaries isn’t a gift to the United States; Xi should want that, too.
Meanwhile, Chinese officials continue to send the message that Biden administration officials must back off from confronting Beijing’s bad behavior if they want to keep it talking. This year, the administration has rolled out limited curbs on investing in China and narrow export restrictions on high technology. But at the same time, there has been a noticeable decline in efforts to counter China’s military expansion, economic aggression and internal repression.
“The Biden team appears more focused on open-ended engagement that is producing little in terms of stability or actually security in the relationship,” said Eric Sayers, a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “As a result, year three of Biden’s China policy has looked very different than the first two years.”
Encouragingly, the Biden administration has made real progress this year with Asian allies and partners, and these relationships will be on display this week in San Francisco. Biden will meet with the other leaders of the Quad, a diplomatic grouping of the United States, Japan, India and Australia. Biden will also hold a trilateral meeting with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts, a follow-up to the Camp David Summit Biden hosted for these leaders in August.
But discouragingly, Biden said on Tuesday that his objective with Xi is to “change the relationship for the better.” Xi’s objective is different; he wants to lull Washington into a false sense of security while speeding up China’s plans to dominate the region and change the global order to benefit Beijing’s interests.
Talking with China is better than not talking. But Biden should realize that Xi is not his friend, and that the best way to avoid conflict with China is to show Xi he won’t fall into the same trap as his predecessors.