World in crisis: Five key topics Biden and Xi will discuss in high-stakes meeting
15th November 2023

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San Francisco: The secret location has been fortified, the ceremonial details have been refined, and the agenda of talking points has been set.

Now all that’s left is the meeting itself – and the hope that this high-stakes event will help stabilise the relationship between the US and China, which has been rocky for years.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden shaking hands at the G20 last year.Credit: AP

When US President Joe Biden greets Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of APEC in San Francisco on Wednesday (US time), it will be the first time the leaders have met for face-to-face talks in about a year.

Issues such as the Chinese spy balloon scandal and the theft of sensitive technology, along with former speaker Nancy Pelosi’s contentious trip to Taiwan last year, have all been flashpoints in an increasingly fraught relationship between the world’s two largest economies.

While the summit won’t end the stand-off between them, it will nonetheless be a sign that Biden and Xi want to maintain ties, despite lingering tensions over trade, sanctions, and the future of the Indo-Pacific.

Here are five things the two leaders are likely to discuss.

Re-establishing military communications

If there’s one thing Biden will want to achieve from his meeting with Xi, it’s the re-establishment of military-to-military communication between the two countries.

China suspended regular contact with the US military in August last year, after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, despite Beijing threatening repercussions.

But the contact began eroding long before Pelosi defiantly stepped onto the tarmac in Taipei.

Nancy Pelosi’s 2022 Taiwan trip inflamed tensions between China and the US.Credit: AP

Indeed, US officials say that China has not responded to multiple Department of Defence requests for top-level dialogues since 2021.

The US views military contact as crucial to avoiding any missteps that could result in a war, particularly across the Asia-Pacific, where China has ramped up its efforts to militarise man-made islands in the South China Sea.

“Having our two militaries in communication is the way you reduce mistakes, you avoid escalation, and you manage competition, so it doesn’t veer into conflict,” said Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

Combating fentanyl

It’s the deadliest drug in America: 50 times more powerful than heroin and responsible for almost 74,000 overdose deaths last year alone.

But in a potential breakthrough, Wednesday’s meeting could result in a crackdown on fentanyl under a deal that would lead to China going after chemical companies, while the US would lift restrictions on China’s forensic institute.

A protester reacts as delegates from China exit the St Regis Hotel on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco.Credit: Bloomberg

Fentanyl largely comes into the US thanks to China, which produces most of the source chemicals used to make the synthetic drug. It is then mass-produced in Mexico and enters America via drug cartels.

“I won’t get too far ahead of the meeting, and I’ll let the president speak for himself after he has the chance to meet with President Xi,” Sullivan said.

“But we believe that there are areas where our interests overlap, like our efforts to combat the illicit fentanyl trade.”

The wars in Gaza and Ukraine

As Xi Jinping was en route to the US for his first visit since 2017, tens of thousands of demonstrators were gathering at Washington’s National Mall for a “March for Israel” rally on Tuesday.

The protest came as the latest Middle East conflict entered its sixth week. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is rejecting calls for a ceasefire and Biden is under growing pressure in the US – and among the APEC nations – to “do more” to stop the carnage in Gaza.

Tens of thousands of Americans attended the March for Israel in Washington on Tuesday.Credit: AP

Against this backdrop, and alongside the ongoing war in Ukraine, Biden will attempt to convince Xi that it’s in his interest to use China’s leverage with Iran and Russia to help contain the conflicts.


2024 will be a big year for elections, with the US set to go to the polls in November, and Taiwan’s presidency up for grabs in January.

“Both could inject more uncertainty into the bilateral relationship,” says Bonny Lin, the director of the China Power Project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

The US has a long-standing “One China” policy, which recognises formal ties with China rather than the island of Taiwan.

The policy also acknowledges that there is only one Chinese government.

At the same time, Biden has sent mixed signals on where he stands, which has exacerbated tensions.

To that end, China – which views Taiwan as its own – is likely to push Biden for additional reassurances that the US does not support Taiwanese independence.

Biden, meanwhile, will underscore US concerns about Beijing’s military activities around Taiwan and “set out a vision for peace and stability and the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait”.


For the past year, the US has imposed sweeping restrictions on technology exports to China in a bid to thwart American chips and equipment from strengthening the country’s military.

Needless to say, Beijing has bristled over the export controls, accusing Washington of trying to suppress Chinese companies.

“The US needs to stop politicising and weaponising trade and tech issues and stop destabilising global industrial and supply chains,” China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said last month after a new round of rules were announced, this time in relation to AI chips.

Xi will use the meeting as a way to shift the trajectory, while Biden is expected to defend the US’ position, while at the same time, seek to assure Xi that he is not trying to wage an economic war.

“The United States does not seek to decouple from China,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said at APEC on Monday. “We have no interest in such a divided world and its disastrous effects.”

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