WASHINGTON — U.S.-China relations, marred in the past year by a series of inflection points, have reached one of the tensest periods perhaps since 1972, when then-President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China paved the way for diplomatic relations.
A Chinese spy balloon. Close encounters in both the air and the Taiwan Strait. Diplomatic spats over the theft of technology, hacking and trade. A drought of military-to-military talks. Even the lapse of a panda agreement.
All point to worsening relations that will hang over next week’s meeting between President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping, their first in-person meeting in about a year, and the first time since 2017 that Xi has stepped foot on American soil.
But experts and U.S. officials caution not to expect markedly improved relations post-meeting.
“We should probably keep a pretty low bar in terms of tangible outcomes and deliverables,” said Colleen Cottle, deputy director of the Global China Hub at the Atlantic Council. “This is a meeting that’s probably much more about symbolism and showing a commitment among both leaders to maintain high-level communications and keep communications flowing over the course of the next year.”
Senior U.S. administration officials detailed a handful of agenda items during a briefing with reporters. The leaders are expected to discuss hot-button issues including military communications, human rights and the South China Sea, an official said.
“We’re not talking about a long list of outcomes or deliverables,” a senior administration official told reporters. “The goals here really are about managing the competition, preventing the downside risk of conflict and ensuring channels of communication are open.”
Neither the U.S. nor China appears to be gearing up for a significantly positive swing in relations, experts said.
“I think the administration here is quite clear and sober about the likely outcomes of the meeting,” said Jude Blanchette, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies during the think tank’s press briefing. “They’ve been working hard to lower expectations. I think you’re seeing something similar on the Chinese side.”
Despite low expectations, the meeting could pave the way for future discussions about solutions to issues that impact both countries, said Thomas Fingar, a China expert at Stanford University and former chairman of the National Intelligence Council. He cautioned against the idea that a summit’s purpose is to solve some “critical, otherwise insoluble problem. It doesn’t work that way very often.”
He explained that in China’s political system, lower-level officials often need explicit clearance from the top.
“For there really to be movement for lower levels of the system to engage in specifics, it needs a refreshed endorsement from Xi,” Fingar said.
The meeting itself, though anticipated, was not formally announced by the White House and Chinese Foreign Ministry until Friday. Even in recent days, Chinese officials were hesitant to confirm that Xi would attend the meeting with Biden. In a press briefing on Wednesday, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said it “won’t be plain sailing to San Francisco, nor can we leave it to autopilot to get us there.”
Similarly, when White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was asked during a briefing on Wednesday whether the meeting was “locked in,” she said, “I just don’t have anything confirmed.”
When announcing the meeting, Jean-Pierre said in a statement that the leaders would discuss “issues in the U.S.-PRC bilateral relationship, the continued importance of maintaining open lines of communication, and a range of regional and global issues,” using the abbreviation for the People’s Republic of China.
“I don’t think there’s any indication that things are going to improve between the two sides,” said Oriana Skylar Mastro, a China expert at the American Enterprise Institute. She added that neither country is willing to make “any significant concessions” or policy changes “that would be necessary to put the relationship on a different track.”
There are potential areas to move the needle on U.S.-China relations, experts say. NBC News also previously reported that the U.S. is hoping to announce a commitment from China to cut down on fentanyl coming into the U.S., as well as improve military communications.
Military-to-military communications are intended to cut down on the risk of unintended conflict.
It comes at a time when a historic number of U.S. warplanes have been intercepted by China. There were more than 180 incidents of Chinese aircraft intercepting U.S. planes since the fall of 2021, said Ely Ratner, the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, in a Defense Department release. Ratner said that is higher than the number of incidents that took place the decade before that.
An interception has been deadly in the past. In 2001, a U.S. military plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea, killing the Chinese pilot. The Chinese government held the American crew for over a week.
“We’ve raised the importance of (military-to-military) channels in nearly every conversation we’ve had with the Chinese,” a senior administration official said in the press briefing. “This is absolutely critical. And when we’re talking about managing risks, about avoiding conflict, this is exactly the sort of communication we need to be having both at senior levels of our two militaries, but also operator to operator.”
The Biden-Xi meeting comes just weeks after China announced that Li Shangfu would no longer serve as defense minister. Li has been sanctioned by the U.S., and experts say his removal could open the door to better relations on military communication.
A defense minister who has not been sanctioned by the U.S. could make it easier to resume military-to-military talks, said David Sacks, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The Chinese position during Li’s tenure had been, “Why would he talk if he’s under U.S. sanctions? Remove the sanctions, and then we can have a dialogue,” Sacks said. “And so now, presumably his successor will not be under those sanctions, and therefore you don’t have that impediment towards resuming mil-mil dialogue.”
Biden and Xi’s meeting also comes in the lead-up to Taiwan’s 2024 presidential election in January, followed by the U.S. election. Taiwan is a self-ruling democracy that China claims as its own. U.S. policy maintains that Washington does not support Taiwan’s independence, though there is a policy of strategic ambiguity over how the U.S. would respond if China were to invade the island.
Experts say that during the meeting Biden may warn Xi against interfering in Taiwan’s election, “also to give whoever the winner of the election is an opportunity to put forward a proposal for cross-strait dialogue,” Sacks said.
When a senior administration official was asked during the briefing about how the Taiwanese election may come up in the Biden-Xi meeting, the officials emphasized U.S. opposition to any potential Chinese interference.
“We’ve been clear publicly and privately that interference in the Taiwan election is something we’re extremely concerned about,” a senior administration official said. “And of course, we’ll plan on delivering that message again.”
Megan Lebowitz is a politics reporter for NBC News.