WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of U.S. senators hope to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a trip to China this month, two of them told NBC News, as a whirl of diplomatic activity builds expectations for a meeting later this year between the leaders of the world’s two largest economies.
“I don’t think that that’s clear yet whether it will happen,” Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said of a potential meeting between the senators and Xi. “We want to meet with a number of the officials there as well as the American business community there as well, and we would like to meet with President Xi.”
Crapo and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., will lead the delegation, which also includes Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., and Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga. They will also visit U.S. allies South Korea and Japan during the 10-day trip.
Kennedy said it was his understanding that the group would meet with Xi, who has been in power for more than a decade and extended his rule with an unprecedented third term awarded in March at a congress of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
“The main reason I’m going on this trip, aside from the fact that Sen. Schumer asked me, is because I want to meet with President Xi,” he said.
“If you meet with anyone else, it would be an overstatement to say it’s a waste of time, but it’s certainly a less prudent use of your time because President Xi has all the power — he’s the most powerful person in the country since Mao.”
No meeting with Xi has been confirmed, but the Chinese Foreign Ministry said it welcomed the delegation.
“We hope this visit will contribute to a more objective understanding of China in the U.S. Congress, increase dialogue and communication between the legislatures of our two countries, and add positive factors to the growth of China-U.S. relations,” it said in a statement Wednesday.
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Schumer’s office said earlier that he and Crapo would lead the delegation to China during the Senate’s October recess, which is next week, “with the goal of advancing U.S. economic and national security interests in the region.”
It said the trip would include “meetings with government leaders and business leaders from each country and from U.S. companies operating in each country,” and that topics of discussion would include human rights, U.S. business concerns and China’s role in the international community as well as “areas for potential cooperation.”
U.S.-China relations have plunged to their lowest point in decades amid tensions over Taiwan, Russia’s war in Ukraine and the appearance of an alleged Chinese spy balloon over U.S. territory, which prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a February trip to Beijing.
Senior U.S. officials, including members of Congress, would not typically meet with such a high-level figure as Xi. The Chinese president did meet with Blinken when he rescheduled his Beijing trip in June, but he has not met with other senior Biden administration officials who made subsequent trips, including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.
Xi and President Joe Biden could have an opportunity to meet in November at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in San Francisco, although Beijing has not confirmed whether Xi will attend. The two leaders have not spoken since meeting in person last November on the sidelines of a summit of the Group of 20 economies in Indonesia.
“I don’t think President Xi has agreed to meet with us because of our winning personalities,” Kennedy said. “I think it has something to do with testing the waters and preparation for his meeting with President Biden in November.”
Crapo and Kennedy said they expected their conversations with Chinese officials to revolve around national security, economic issues, trade, tax policy and the U.S. fentanyl crisis. On Tuesday the Biden administration announced indictments and sanctions against dozens of China-based companies and executives accused of trafficking fentanyl precursor chemicals into the United States.
China says it takes a firm stance against narcotics and that it is up to the U.S. to address its consumption of fentanyl, a powerful opioid that is now the country’s deadliest drug.
Kennedy said he also hoped to discuss intellectual property rights, Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and the restoration of military-to-military communication channels, which China cut in protest after Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker at the time, visited the Beijing-claimed island of Taiwan in August 2022.
Frank Thorp V and Liz Brown-Kaiser reported from Washington, and Jennifer Jett reported from Hong Kong.
Frank Thorp V
Frank Thorp V is a producer and off-air reporter covering Congress for NBC News, managing coverage of the Senate.
Liz Brown-Kaiser covers Capitol Hill for NBC News.
Jennifer Jett is Asia digital editor for NBC News, based in Hong Kong.