Opinion: When Biden meets Xi, there’s one obstacle he can’t overcome

Opinion: When Biden meets Xi, there’s one obstacle he can’t overcome

Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

When President Joe Biden meets Chinese leader Xi Jinping in California on Wednesday, it will mark the first time in exactly one year and one day since the heads of the two nuclear-armed rivals have seen each other in person.

Frida Ghitis - CNN
Frida Ghitis - CNN

Much has happened since that day in Bali, Indonesia, last year. The two have a long and urgent list of issues to discuss – including two raging wars, a heating planet and a host of other highly flammable issues.

The notion – Biden’s hope – behind the summit is that the two leaders will find a way to manage the competition between their countries in a responsible manner: great powers, coming together as stewards of a dangerous world, working jointly to keep it from spinning out of control.

That’s the idea, anyway.

In practice, the goal faces an almost insurmountable obstacle, even if more modest ones are worth pursuing and achievable.

Biden may want Xi to help bring down the temperature on the world’s ongoing wars and help prevent new ones from igniting. But from Xi’s perspective, today’s open conflicts are damaging to the US-led world order and hence, I believe, helpful to his goal of seeing the US fail as the world’s preeminent superpower, allowing China to emerge as an alternative.

Xi – not unlike Russian President Vladimir Putin – is aiming to restore his country to some historic greatness and power. As China rises on the regional and global stage, Xi wants his autocratic system of government to gain international legitimacy, challenging US primacy.

In fact, shortly after taking power more than a decade ago, he secretly ordered a national pushback against values he described as “Western,” including democracy, human rights and a free press.

On his first state visit to the US in 2015, Xi stood alongside then-President Barack Obama and reassured the world that he was committed to “peaceful development” and “cooperative relations with all countries in the world.” Just two months later, he was telling his Central Military Commission that “relying on a silver tongue” was not enough and that “ultimately, it comes down to whether you have strength and whether you can use that strength.” What followed was an aggressive militarization of disputed areas.

It’s no coincidence that in the wars between Russia and Ukraine and between Hamas and Israel the positions of Washington and Beijing are on opposite sides. Although China occasionally tries to keep a façade of neutrality, there’s little question that it is aligned with Russia. And, when Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, Beijing refused to condemn it, even before Israel launched its counteroffensive.

China also maintains strong relations with Iran, whose regime is helping to arm Russia, and remains the principal sponsor of Hamas.

That stance, those close ties with the Kremlin and with Hamas’ sponsors in Tehran, could give Beijing leverage in bringing an end to these wars, both launched against US allies. China may at some point use that leverage to display its diplomatic power and to portray itself as a peacemaker (a campaign that polls show has failed in the US).

The prospect of splitting Moscow from Beijing, appealing as it may seem, looks out of reach.

For now, unless there’s an imminent risk of a major expansion of the conflicts, it’s likely that behind Xi’s half-smile, he takes some satisfaction in seeing the US backing two countries engaged in combat.

That is not to say that Wednesday’s meeting is pointless or that it will achieve nothing. The summit is important, and it will produce some results.

It’s likely that the California summit will restore military-to-military communications, cut off last year by Beijing after then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, sending diplomatic ties into a tailspin and putting an end to crucial communications between military forces.

The last time China's President Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden met in person was on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Indonesia, November 14, 2022. - Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
The last time China's President Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden met in person was on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Indonesia, November 14, 2022. - Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Given China’s increasingly aggressive military moves in disputed areas of the South China Sea, those links are indispensable to prevent an unintentional clash.

Biden is expected to bring up areas of contention: China’s continuing threats and intimidation of Taiwan, the self-ruled democratic island Xi vows to bring under Beijing’s control; Beijing’s possible interference in Taiwan’s upcoming elections – and America’s.

White House officials have said Biden will provide “clarity” to Xi, on the US positions regarding Taiwan and Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Biden is likely to make a strong point about Iran’s continuing support for Hamas and other violent proxies across the Middle East and to reaffirm that the US will not tolerate an expansion of the war. Biden has told Iran “don’t” escalate the conflict, emphasizing the point by dispatching two aircraft carrier groups to the region.

China is in a good position to drive the point to Tehran. After all, however Beijing feels about the war in Gaza, it’s unlikely it wants to see a much wider conflict disrupting shipping lanes and trade relations.

There are other areas rife for progress. Both countries are interested in curbing global warming, for example, and they could uncontroversially work together to stop the flow of Fentanyl and its precursor chemicals from China to the US.

Then there’s the global economy. The leaders of the world’s two biggest economies don’t want to see a global recession. The Biden administration has already been working to convince China that it’s not looking for a full “decoupling” of the two economies – even if it’s trying to “de-risk” the economic relationship, after discovering the danger of becoming overly reliant on Chinese imports.

China’s economy is the midst of a sharp slowdown after decades of breakneck expansion. For Xi’s predecessors, economic expansion was the paramount goal, one achieved with spectacular success. But for the first time since Mao Zedong, China has a leader willing to sacrifice economic growth for the sake of political and ideological objectives.

Still, there’s a limit to how much Xi can downplay the need for growth. The tacit social contract between the ruling Chinese Communist Party and the people of China dictates that the regime provides prosperity and, in exchange, the people surrender their political freedoms. Although he seems firmly in power, completely ignoring the economy would be too risky for the Chinese leader.

The biggest obstacle to a transformative summit is that, from Xi’s perspective, many of the world’s problems are America’s problems, and thus wins for China. Even so, Biden and Xi are likely to make some progress in an important and necessary meeting.

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