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China's Xi Jinping to meet with Biden in San Francisco


President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping are sitting down to talk next week at the meeting of an Asia-Pacific economic group in San Francisco. It has been more than a year since the two leaders have met, and tensions between the U.S. and China have risen. NPR China correspondent John Ruwitch joins us. John, thanks so much for being with us.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Happy to. Good morning.

SIMON: It's extraordinary that it's been a year since the two leaders have spoken, and it's been quite some time since President Xi has been in the U.S., hasn't it?

RUWITCH: It has. It's been more than six years, if you can believe that. His last trip to the U.S. was in April of 2017, and a lot has changed since then, as you can imagine. We've had a trade war, a pandemic. There have been spats over human rights and technology. Military-to-military ties were cut after Nancy Pelosi, who was House speaker, went to Taiwan last year. There was the spy balloon incident. I could go on and on. The relationship's in a very different place than it was the last time Xi was here. But, you know, compared to earlier this year, in the wake of the spy balloon, things do seem to be in a little bit better shape.

SIMON: How so?

RUWITCH: Yeah. There's just been lots of diplomacy. You know, both sides have sent senior officials back and forth. And they seem to be keen to stabilize the relationship, to sort of put a floor under it with all this dialogue. But this trip by Xi Jinping to San Francisco is not a state visit. Biden and Xi will only talk for a few hours. They're going to talk about a wide range of things. And advisers to Biden say it's going to be limited in terms of what is going to come out of it. You know, their main goal is just to stabilize the relationship and lower the risk of conflict. Bonny Lin is director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

BONNY LIN: I don't think either side are going in expecting major deliverables or major breakthroughs in the relationship. But it could empower the two sides to make - continue to make progress on areas where we've seen improvement.

RUWITCH: Right. So that's things like climate change or people-to-people interactions rather than government-to-government. The Biden administration says it wants more cooperation from China on fentanyl. A lot of the precursor chemicals come from China. We might see some agreement there. Also, there seems to be momentum toward restarting those military-to-military talks, which were cut after Pelosi's visit to Taiwan.

SIMON: What would be the incentive in that for President Xi?

RUWITCH: Well, President Xi wants stability too, right? And reestablishing senior military-to-military talks would be a pretty good step and an example of that. You know, the navies of the U.S. and China are the biggest in the world. They're operating near each other in the South China Sea and around Taiwan pretty regularly. Nobody wants an unintentional escalation. But Oriana Skylar Mastro is a China expert at Stanford University, says that even a reestablishment of those mil-mil exchanges in the medium and long term would have limitations.

ORIANA SKYLAR MASTRO: Because China traditionally uses them as a tool, as a threat to say we're going to cut these off whenever we're unhappy.

RUWITCH: There's no guarantee they won't do that again in the future. Another key thing that's on Xi's mind these days, of course, is China's economy, which has had a disappointing recovery this year. Foreign investment's down. There's been an outflow of capital from China. Xi is expected to speak at a dinner for business leaders in San Francisco when he's there. And he will, no doubt, make an appeal to them. But proof's going to be in the pudding. You know, a lot of foreign business executives that deal with China have been spooked by his policies. So, you know, even though he and Biden are meeting and these talks are a positive step, they will not solve the fundamental problems.

SIMON: NPR's John Ruwitch. Thanks so much for being with us.

RUWITCH: You bet.

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