U.S. President Joe Biden meets Chinese leader Xi Jinping for the first time in a year on Wednesday for talks that may ease friction between the two superpowers over military conflicts, drug-trafficking and artificial intelligence.
However, deep progress on the vast differences separating them may have to wait for another day.
Officials on both sides of the Pacific have set expectations low as Biden and Xi are set to discuss Taiwan, the South China Sea, the Israel-Hamas war, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, North Korea, and human rights – each of them areas where the leaders have been unable to resolve long-standing disagreements.
Biden and Xi arrived in San Francisco on Tuesday, where they were set to hold their meeting on the sidelines the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.
Leaders from the 21-country group – and hundreds of CEOs in San Francisco to court them – meet amid Chinese economic weakness, Beijing’s territorial feuds with neighbors, and a Middle East conflict that is dividing the United States from allies.
Efforts to carefully choreograph Xi’s visit may be upended in San Francisco despite efforts to drive homeless people from the streets. The route from the airport to the conference site was lined with demonstrators for and against China’s ruling Communist Party, an unusual sight for Xi, who last visited the United States in 2017.
Biden has sought direct diplomacy with Xi, betting that a personal relationship he has cultivated for a dozen years with the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong might salvage ties that are increasingly turning hostile.
Chong Ja Ian, a political science professor at the National University of Singapore, said the two sides are engaged in what Mao referred to during the Chinese civil war as “talk and fight, fight and talk”.
“That is, to talk while building up forces,” Chong said.
Xi and Biden are expected to meet far from the conference location at Filoli Estate, miles outside of San Francisco and carefully chosen for its security, serenity and remoteness.
“The table has been set…over the course of many weeks for what we hope will be a very productive, candid, constructive conversation,” White House spokesperson John Kirby said.