Since the 1980s, every U.S. president has met with the top Chinese leader during his first year in office (see table below). This convention is expected to continue under President Joe Biden, whose administration recently announced plans to hold his first virtual meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Aside from two phone calls in February and September, Biden and Xi have engaged in little direct dialogue since Biden has become president—despite both leaders holding numerous meetings with their counterparts in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere.

As tensions mount in the U.S.-China relationship, there is a need for more effective bilateral communication, especially at the most senior levels.

Why Have the Two Presidents Waited So Long to Hold a Meeting?

Biden and Xi each have their own strategic rationale for withholding outreach to the other side. Biden and his administration have been focused on tackling domestic issues like the coronavirus pandemic and the related economic crisis, while working abroad to repair alliances and partnerships that atrophied under the prior administration. Through these early efforts to shore up American strength, the Biden administration has tried to gain leverage to engage Chinese leaders from a position of greater strength. At the same time, Washington remains focused on completing interagency policy reviews and nominating officials to senior positions, rendering a presidential meeting slow to materialize.

In Beijing, perceptions of China’s strength and momentum have reduced Chinese officials’ urgency to engage in substantive dialogues with their U.S. counterparts. Over the past year, leaders in China repeated a slogan that “the East is rising and the West is falling.” These perceptions were reinforced by Beijing’s assessment of its performance in containing the spread of the coronavirus and its ability to weather the U.S.-China trade war.

Although Chinese officials expressed interest in stabilizing the U.S.-China relationship after Biden’s inauguration, they wanted to do so on their own terms and without offering steps of their own or taking any initiative to help put the relationship in a better place. Instead, the predominant narrative among Chinese leaders has been that the United States is responsible for the downturn in the relationship and it is Washington’s responsibility to “undo a knot.”

Why Is It Important for the Two Presidents to Meet?

While the U.S.-China relationship has grown more competitive in recent years, it is still important for the two sides to communicate effectively. U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said recently that “intense competition requires intense diplomacy.”

Diplomacy is especially important at the leadership level because mid-level and lower-level dialogues have yielded little progress. Exchanges between heads of state will not resolve all the issues in the U.S.-China relationship, but they can help to stabilize relations and prevent unintended outcomes. Even during the height of the Cold War, top U.S. and Soviet leaders met regularly to prevent their rivalry from spilling into a hot war.

Paul Haenle
Paul Haenle holds the Maurice R. Greenberg Director's Chair at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore. Haenle served as the director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia Affairs on the National Security Council staffs of former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama prior to joining Carnegie.
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Officials in China and the United States recognize that there is little substitute for direct, leader-level diplomacy. U.S. officials have determined that Chinese diplomats lack the authority to engage in substantive dialogues, since power has become centralized in the hands of Xi. Meanwhile, many in China see little daylight between the policy positions of Biden and his administration, leading them to believe that a policy shift can only come from the top. In an ideal scenario, a presidential meeting would supplement—rather than supplant—working-level dialogues. But the reality of the U.S.-China relationship is far from ideal.

Each side also has its own strategic reasons for warming up to the prospect of a presidential meeting. The Biden administration recognizes that it would be irresponsible for the leaders of the world’s two most powerful countries to go an entire year without holding in-depth talks. While the administration has sought to “lead with competition” in its relations with China, as two top U.S. officials wrote before entering the White House, it does not intend to spurn dialogue and diplomacy altogether.

Xi, for his part, is entering an important political year in which he hopes to secure a convention-breaking third term at the 20th National Party Congress. In the lead-up to the event, Xi will be heavily focused on solidifying his leadership at home and managing international disruptions, including those liable to emerge in the U.S.-China relationship.

What Top-Line Issues Could Emerge?

Over the course of the last several years, U.S.-China relations have grown more complex across a range of security, economic, and political issues. Unlike past presidential summits, the planned meeting between Biden and Xi is unlikely to result in a set of concrete outcomes and deliverables prepared through preceding working-level discussions. Instead, Biden will seek to convince Xi that the U.S. administration’s high-level framework—based on competition, confrontation, and cooperation—is a stable basis for the bilateral relationship and need not result in conflict. Xi, on the other hand, will be focused on convincing the U.S. president to return to the status quo ante and reduce diplomatic and economic pressure on China.

The recent meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi previewed many of the specific issues that could be raised between Biden and Xi. Taiwan tops the list as one of the most dangerous flash points in the relationship. Washington has grown increasingly concerned about the mainland’s willingness to use military power to achieve its objective of unification, while leaders in Beijing perceive growing U.S. support for Taiwan as tantamount to support for Taiwan independence.

There is a need for the two leaders to reaffirm their long-standing positions: for Beijing to pledge to maintain peace across the Taiwan Strait and for the United States to refrain from taking a position on Taiwan’s sovereignty. This understanding has provided a stable foundation for U.S.-China relations for over five decades.

What Other Issues Might Be Discussed?

Beyond the Taiwan Strait, a host of security issues riddle the U.S.-China relationship, including rising tensions in the South and East China Seas, worsening territorial disputes between China and U.S. treaty allies, and mutual suspicion about each other’s military modernization efforts. As flash points begin to emerge, the two presidents should commit to establish more robust crisis management mechanisms to avoid an unintended military clash.

Nathaniel Sher
Nathaniel Sher is a research analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Each side is also likely to raise its concerns regarding the other’s behavior and actions that undermine its interests. In his recent meeting with Blinken, Wang reportedly criticized U.S. sanctions on Chinese companies and officials as well as the United States’ attempt to use “small cliques” of allies to “suppress” China. Washington, for its part, has repeatedly expressed concern about China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, unfair economic practices, and assertive military actions.

Finally, the two presidents will likely raise the prospect of bilateral cooperation. In Rome, Blinken and Wang discussed the possibility of working together on nonproliferation in North Korea and Iran, stability in Afghanistan and Burma, and combating climate change. These issues could be front and center as Biden and Xi seek to improve the overall tenor of the relationship.

What Could the Meeting Accomplish?

Many scholars and experts suggest that, in order to put the U.S.-China relationship on a better footing, the two sides should make genuine efforts to cooperate on global issues, including climate change, global health, nonproliferation, and other transnational issues. Since the Biden administration entered office, however, this kind of cooperation has been difficult to achieve due to differences between each side’s view of the conditions necessary for bilateral cooperation.

For example, during U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry’s last trip to China, Wang insisted that “China-U.S. cooperation on climate change cannot be divorced from the overall situation of China-U.S relations.” In other words, Beijing tends to view cooperation not as something that should be pursued on its own merits to address issues of global importance, but as something that can be used as a bargaining chip to get better treatment from the United States in other areas. U.S. officials, on the other hand, refuse to accept “linking bilateral issues with vital transnational challenges.” These divergent approaches to cooperation have prevented the two sides from making meaningful progress on issues of common concern.

Perhaps a more effective emphasis in the near term would be for the two leaders to commit to establish a problem-solving mode for the relationship. Rather than basing all efforts on trying to develop a robust menu of cooperative actions between the two countries, the two leaders could start with a more basic approach aimed at simply solving or mitigating some of the myriad problems in the relationship.

If the two leaders are able to commit to a problem-solving approach, going forward they could begin to address key irritants, such as restrictions on journalist access and reciprocal consulate closures. Then, the two sides could begin to tackle broader structural issues, such as trade and economic imbalances and security flashpoints. Problem solving should not be pursued to improve the relationship for its own sake, but to address the many issues that currently serve neither country’s interests.

Timeline of Official First Meetings between U.S. and Chinese Paramount Leaders
Date Location U.S. President Chinese Paramount Leader Months between term start and meeting date
April 26, 1984 Beijing, China Ronald Reagan Deng Xiaoping 39 (due to finalizing communiqué)
February 26, 1989 Beijing, China George H. W. Bush Deng Xiaoping 1
November 19, 1993 Seattle, United States (Sidelines of APEC) Bill Clinton Jiang Zemin 10
October 19, 2001 Shanghai, China (Sidelines of APEC) George W. Bush Jiang Zemin 9
June 1, 2003 Evian, France (Sidelines of the Evian Summit between the G8 and G12) George W. Bush Hu Jintao 3
April 1, 2009 London, UK (Sidelines of the G20) Barack Obama Hu Jintao 3
June 7–8, 2013 Rancho Mirage, United States Barack Obama Xi Jinping 5
April 6, 2017 Palm Beach, United States Donald Trump Xi Jinping 3

Acknowledgments

The authors are grateful for research assistance provided by Sophie Bryant, Winston Michalak, and Gefei Zhou