Editor’s Note: This story was excerpted from the November 15 edition of CNN’s Meanwhile in America, the daily email about US politics for global readers. Click here to read past editions and subscribe.
Never in the modern histories of the United States and China has antagonism been so high ahead of a major leaders’ summit.
President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping will meet virtually on Monday after a tumultuous start to the Biden administration’s turn to manage relations with Beijing. After years insisting the US is not trying to contain China, no one in Washington is pretending anymore.
While Beijing would prefer that Washington mind its own business, the list of US complaints is long and growing. Most alarming is China’s intense pressure on the self-governing island of Taiwan amid a gathering debate in Washington about what to do in case of an invasion and deep concern about China’s build-up of conventional and nuclear weapons. Biden’s administration also accuses Xi’s government of overplaying its hand in territorial disputes in the South China Sea, committing genocide against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province, and eviscerating democracy in Hong Kong. It’s also frustrated that China has not done more to explain the origins of Covid-19 in Wuhan.
The two leaders come into the talks – taking place online because Xi hasn’t left China since the pandemic erupted – in contrasting political positions.
Xi has moved aggressively to cement his own power, and is expected to secure an almost unprecedented third five-year term next year after the Communist Party elevated him to the same symbolic stature as former leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.
Biden – who unlike Xi has to deal with the complications of democracy – is struggling to stabilize a presidency hammered by the aftermath of the pandemic and a perfect storm of rising inflation and gas prices that dented his approval ratings, though he has made strides in reinvigorating US alliances with an eye on China. Economic concerns weigh on both.
Given the vast gulf between the sides, and the political imperative for both leaders to stand firm against the other right now, it’s unlikely that tangible steps to ease tensions will emerge from the talks. But an understanding not to let tensions get even worse would be a start.
‘An opportunity for the two leaders to discuss how to responsibly manage competition’
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday rang up his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in preparation for their bosses’ freighted summit.
“The meeting presents an opportunity for the two leaders to discuss how to responsibly manage competition between the United States and the (People’s Republic of China) while working together in areas where interests align,” a readout of the call released by the US State Department readout said.