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President Biden and China's Xi set to have their 1st formal meeting as leaders

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

U.S.-China relations are at their worst in decades. And tonight, President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping will hold a virtual summit. The two leaders have talked on the phone a couple of times since Biden took office, but this will be their first formal meeting.

And to help us understand what's at stake, we're joined by NPR China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch. John, I want to start with the fact that this has taken such a long time considering that President Biden has been in office for more than 10 months.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Yeah. Previous presidents met their Chinese counterparts a lot sooner. I mean, part of it is the pandemic. The other part is probably the state of relations, which is really bad between China and the U.S. There's friction across the board. You know, China had really hoped that the Biden administration would take a different tack towards China relations after four years of Trump. They've been disappointed. You know, we saw that reflected in the first few meetings of senior diplomats from both sides. They were very rocky. There was a lot of finger-wagging. Biden's been rebuilding alliances with an eye on China. That stoked mistrust in Beijing. So it's all part of why this has taken so long to get a summit like this going.

CORNISH: So what will be on the agenda for the summit itself? What are their goals?

RUWITCH: Right. From the White House side, this meeting is being seen as an opportunity to discuss, you know, how to responsibly manage competition with China, to put up what they call guardrails so they can avoid conflict. They're going to raise some thorny issues, but also, they want to explore areas where the two countries can work together, where their interests align, like on the climate, for instance. For China, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian addressed this issue at a press conference in Beijing earlier today.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

ZHAO LIJIAN: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: He's saying Beijing really hopes the U.S. can work with China and that this summit can steer relations back to the right track of, quote, "sound and steady development." You know, from Beijing's perspective, all this friction, this tension in relations is not normal. It's bad. And China wants stability and predictability in this relationship.

CORNISH: Is this a meeting, though, where they can hammer out any kind of deals or make kind of hard decisions?

RUWITCH: I would not expect it. Right? In the past, we would have seen - we would have expected trade and investment deals, that type of thing. Administration officials have flagged that this meeting isn't about major deliverables. Experts I've talked to think that what we can really hope for out of this meeting is that it starts to stabilize the relationship, it sets maybe a better tone, puts a floor under the deterioration in the relationship. I spoke with Susan Thornton about this. She was previously the top State Department official for Asia and is now a senior fellow at Yale University.

SUSAN THORNTON: You know, I don't have high expectations, actually, for the results of this summit. But what I hope to see from it is that it sort of regularizes and normalizes communication between these two countries, which we very much need, I think.

RUWITCH: Yeah. And we need that communication - right? - because these are the world's two biggest economies, and their militaries have been increasingly operating in the same area - you know, Taiwan, around Taiwan, in the South China Sea. And there's a significant risk of accident or miscalculation. Communications just have really suffered over the past couple years.

CORNISH: Finally, moves from the Chinese Communist Party to endorse Xi Jinping staying on as leader - what impact does that have going forward with this relationship?

RUWITCH: Well, Xi Jinping has consolidated power. The Biden administration knows that. And that's why they see a leader-level engagement like this as key. Between now and the party congress next year, when Xi might stay on, there's a lot on his plate - the economy, the pandemic, the Olympics. That said, you know, the party is very much framing the present as a moment of historic opportunity for China. And from their perspective, the East is on the way up, and the West is declining. Biden, meanwhile, has made clear he wants to set the U.S. up to be able to outcompete China and retain the U.S. place as the global leader. So I think we'll be watching this space for some time to come.

CORNISH: That's NPR's John Ruwitch. Thanks so much.

RUWITCH: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.