By Alex Willemyns
It’s a summit originally designed by the United States to promote free-trade around the Pacific Rim. But the only thing certain at this week’s meeting of leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group in San Francisco is that free trade won’t be on the agenda.
The event’s headliner is instead a Wednesday meeting – away from the summit itself, on the “sidelines” – between U.S. President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, who have met only once since Biden took office in 2021, in Bali, Indonesia, one year ago.
But even that had not been certain.
Xi’s travel plans were announced Friday. But before that, China seemed to be hedging its bets, careful to avoid a last-minute wrench in the works, like the alleged Chinese spy balloon that derailed Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Beijing in February.
“It won’t be plain sailing to San Francisco, nor can we leave it to autopilot to get us there,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Wednesday, calling for “both sides to rise above disruptions.”
China’s ambassador to Washington, Xie Feng, also said Thursday that the United States “should avoid playing with fire or crossing the line” on “sensitive” issues like Taiwan, and ominously warned U.S. leaders that “a good host needs to avoid creating any new trouble or obstacle.”
Still, both Washington and Beijing say plans are underway for talks.
For one, the good fortune of having this year’s APEC summit on U.S. soil allows the pair to meet in the shadows of a larger event without the scrutiny of an official state visit – and in a manner likely impossible next year, amid the build-up to next November’s U.S. presidential election.
“China, normally, if they come to the United States, they want everything. They want all the pomp and circumstance; they want the highest possible respect,” said Victor Cha, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Given the overall state of the relationship,” he said, “that is politically not possible. So having APEC in San Francisco solves that problem, in the sense it’s not the official White House that’s hosting the meeting.”
Xi’s planned trip to San Francisco comes after about six months of attempts to put a floor on ties between the two powers following a year of tensions that kicked off with Beijing’s angry reply to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan in August 2021.
Since then, four U.S. Cabinet-level officials have visited Beijing – Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and climate envoy John Kerry – and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi last month made the trip back to Washington.
Costs of engagement
Many in Washington are still skeptical of the benefits of engaging Xi, especially amid ongoing human rights abuses in China and the uptick in near-accidents between U.S. and Chinese jets and warships.
Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Republican from Wisconsin who chairs the House Select Committee on China, wrote a letter to Biden expressing concern that “the recent prioritization of bilateral engagement has come at an unacceptable cost” in terms of concessions to Beijing.
The bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China also issued a letter calling for Biden to raise with Xi the dozens of “arbitrarily detained” prisoners, including U.S. citizens, and to end transnational repression of Uyghurs, Tibetans and Chinese dissidents in the United States.
“We believe that by raising these cases, you can make a positive impact on prisoners’ lives and the lives of their families, and hopefully, we can bring about their release from politically motivated detention,” the letter read.
But lawmakers like Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, who is also the ranking Democrat on the China Select Committee, have noted that only through such talks can those issues even be raised with Beijing.
Speaking at an event on APEC hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Monday, Krishnamoorthi argued leader-level dialogue with Beijing did not mean U.S. capitulation on any issues.
“Some of my Republican colleagues are a little uncomfortable with the amount of dialogue that’s happening at the highest levels between our two governments,” Krishnamoorthi said, explaining that he saw the engagement as a “very good thing” for the United States.
“We must do everything we can,” he said, “to communicate our concerns about aggression – whether it’s military, economic, or on human rights, face-to-face – and explain exactly where we stand.”
There’s a summit?
At the end of the day, few hold out hope that the Biden-Xi talks will produce anything other than potentially more talks, with the highest hopes reserved for resumed military-to-military communications, which have been severed for months, even amid slowly warming ties.
“I have pretty modest expectations for the meeting in San Francisco,” said Rick Waters, managing director for China at the Eurasia Group and the former head of the U.S. State Department’s “China House.”
“U.S.-China summitry is no longer about the major lists of deliverables,” he said at an event hosted by Foreign Policy magazine on Thursday. “It’s more now about managing a relationship that’s in secular decline … [and] managing a relationship” to ensure it doesn’t “veer into conflict.”
Whatever happens between Biden and Xi, though, in the background a summit once dedicated to free-trade will be focused on anything else.
It was “alarming” to most APEC members that both major parties in the United States had turned their back on free trade in search of votes, said Ashley Tellis, a former Bush administration official and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
But most had accepted the new political reality in Washington, and had moved on to trying to reach deals for cooperation in other areas.
“The great powers in APEC, of course, have big problems that they have to deal with – the so-called ‘high politics,’ of the system,” Tellis said at an event hosted by the Wilson Center on Wednesday.
“But for most of the members, it’s the ‘low politics’ of the system that is the bread and butter – the issues they have to deal with day-to-day,” he said, listing climate-change mitigation strategies and cooperation to avoid future pandemics as priorities for this year’s APEC summit.
“If APEC can continue to make gains in these areas that are, you know, ‘beneath the headlines,’” he said, “I think that would be fantastic.”