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Biden and Xi Jinping have a lot to discuss at their first in-person meeting this week


President Biden is in San Francisco tonight to host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Tomorrow he'll have a private meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, his first in a year. That's a long time for two superpowers that also happen to be the world's top two economies. NPR's John Ruwitch is in the Bay Area to talk us through what is at stake when they meet. Hey, John.


SHAPIRO: Things between these two countries are in bad shape, and this past year has not helped. So what does this meeting mean for bilateral relations between the U.S. and China?

RUWITCH: It means a lot. It's an opportunity, actually, for Biden and Xi to reconnect after quite a long time and also, you know, attempt to renew their relationship. You know, they've met many times, going back to when they were vice presidents. The challenge, of course, is that the relationship between China and the U.S. is very contentious, right? The Biden administration has cast it as fundamentally competitive. Xi Jinping himself has explicitly said he thinks the U.S. is out to encircle China and to thwart its development. Trust is just in short supply. So both leaders, you know, seem to be approaching this meeting as a step towards stabilizing the relationship. President Biden was asked at the White House earlier today how he would define success for this meeting, and here's what he said.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: To get back on a normal course of corresponding, being able to pick up the phone and talk to one another if there's a crisis, being able to make sure our militaries still have contact with one another.

RUWITCH: So in a way, just having this meeting is an achievement - right? - in terms of creating a positive step towards reestablishing just communication between the two governments. It sends a positive message to officials up and down the bureaucracies of the two countries that there should be more of this communication. It also sends a message to other countries that, hey, we're trying to rein in the risks.

SHAPIRO: OK, so this is also about signaling. But here in the U.S., tough on China seems to be a dominant theme from both parties, and the presidential election's just a year away. So how does that factor into things at the summit?

RUWITCH: Yeah. The meeting - I mean, Xi Jinping coming to the U.S. is controversial. There are people who don't like the fact that he's going to be here. There are going to be anti-Xi protests on the streets by members of the Chinese exile community, as well as others here in San Francisco. And there's been political pressure on Biden around the meeting and also for just not being, quote-unquote, "tough enough" on China in general. But administration officials say this meeting does not represent a softening of their approach to China, and they point to opportunities for the U.S. and China to cooperate and for the U.S. to influence Chinese policy - for instance, in cracking down on fentanyl precursors, a lot of which come from China. There's talk of a possible agreement on that this time around. But Yun Sun, who's at the Stimson Center think tank, says if there's a deal on something like that, there's always going to be a trade-off with China, especially now with the relationship in such a bad shape.

YUN SUN: So they are able to - they have the ability to do something on this. But whether - well, it's not going to be free. There will be political costs associated with it.

RUWITCH: Right, political costs, she says.

SHAPIRO: So ultimately, what do you think could come out of this meeting?

RUWITCH: Well, this meeting is expected to run several hours. They have a ton of things to talk about. But in terms of concrete outcomes, China has been mum. The Biden administration has downplayed the idea that there's going to be any kind of big blockbuster deals or anything like that. So both sides are trying to manage expectations. That said, you know, it's possible that military-to-military dialogue will start to resume sometime soon. That was suspended after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan last year. Fentanyl precursors have floated to the top of the Biden administration's agenda. It's an issue that they are really keen to advance. From the Chinese side, you know, at the very least, they're going to want reassurances from President Biden that the U.S. doesn't support independence for Taiwan, which is having a presidential election in a couple of months.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's John Ruwitch in San Francisco, where Biden and Xi are meeting tomorrow. Thanks, John.

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.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.