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Setting Sights on a Biden-Xi Meeting, a Softer US Tone on China?

While remaining noncommittal about who will represent China at a coming economic gathering, Beijing is hinting that Chinese President Xi Jinping's attendance — and thus a possible summit with U.S. President Joe Biden — depends on Washington's creating the right environment.

The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco in November should promote cooperation rather than provoke confrontation, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Tuesday during a news briefing, in response to a question about Xi's participation.

His comments echoed those of other Chinese officials. "To truly realize 'from Bali to San Francisco,' the United States needs to show enough sincerity," the Ministry of State Security said in a post on its WeChat social media page earlier this month. The Bali reference was to the leaders' last meeting on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Indonesia last November.

Urging Washington to "create better conditions" for the meeting, Wang repeated his criticism of "democracy versus autocracy." The term is a signature phrase that Biden has often used, especially in the first two years of his term, to describe what he sees as the defining struggle of our times. Beijing sees it as Washington imposing its values on others.

As American and Chinese officials continue laying the groundwork for a potential Biden-Xi meeting, Washington appears to be working toward such conditions, including by toning down language following months of harsh public comments between the two capitals.

The overarching approach has always been to minimize rhetoric that would veer the relationship toward conflict, a senior administration official told VOA Tuesday. However, the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, as is the norm when discussing national security strategy, said there has been no "downshift in tone" in recent weeks and "no strategic conversations to that effect" within the administration.

Biden himself has struck a more conciliatory tone. In his address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week, the president underscored his desire to responsibly manage competition and avoid conflict, reiterating the message that his administration is "for de-risking, not decoupling with China."

In a visit to Hanoi earlier this month, even as he upgraded bilateral relations with Vietnam — a communist country in Beijing's backyard — Biden repeatedly declared that his efforts to strengthen ties with countries in the region are not designed to "contain" China.

Such messaging is needed to bring down the temperature following months of harsh exchanges. During a campaign fundraiser in June, Biden called Xi a dictator out of touch in decision-making and dismissed China as having "real economic difficulties." Weeks later, he described the country as "a ticking time bomb."

The heated rhetoric added to tensions already elevated from an incident in early February, when the U.S. military shot down a Chinese balloon carrying electronic equipment. Chinese officials deny the aircraft, which had traveled from Alaska to South Carolina, was used for spying.

The two powers have navigated turbulent years as they have been locked in increasingly intense geopolitical rivalry, including in trade and technology. Washington slams China for its "economic coercion" and military assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific, while Beijing criticizes what it calls "Western hegemony."

The APEC meeting is widely seen as an opportunity for the two leaders to stabilize ties. But many irritants are still unresolved, including the exclusion of the leader of Hong Kong, an APEC member. John Lee, chief executive of the Chinese territory, has been banned from entering the U.S. since 2020 for his role in enforcing a national security law that has targeted pro-democracy activists.

More positive tone

Bonnie S. Glaser, managing director of the Indo-Pacific program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, noted a change in attitude on both sides.

"In my conversations about U.S.-China relations with Chinese scholars, I detect a more positive tone and expressions of interest in seizing the opportunity to stabilize the bilateral relationship," she told VOA.

Whether or not Xi attends, Wang Yi said that China is willing to "play a constructive role" in the success of this year's event involving the 21 Pacific Rim member economies. He gave no guarantee that Xi would attend.

Earlier this month, with no official explanation, Xi skipped the G20 summit of the world's largest economies, held in New Delhi.

Xi "has his hands full," Biden commented on his counterpart's absence.

"He has overwhelming unemployment with his youth. One of the major economic tenets of his plan isn't working at all right now," Biden said during a news conference in response to VOA's question on why he has not met with Xi since Bali.

"Nobody likes having celebrated international meetings if you don't know what you want at the meeting, if you don't have a game plan," Biden added. "He may have a game plan; he just hasn't shared it with me."

Beijing's reluctance

Biden was referring to Beijing's reluctance to confirm the San Francisco meeting, said Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia Program and director of the China Program at the Stimson Center.

"The Chinese are not yet sure what they can get out of the meeting, and also what concessions they can get ahead of the meeting, which is also important for them," she told VOA.

The White House has not provided further details but has stepped up bilateral engagements. In mid-September, national security adviser Jake Sullivan held a two-day meeting with Wang, part of ongoing efforts to "maintain open lines of communication."

Washington and Beijing have also created working groups, to be overseen by U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and her Chinese counterpart Vice Premier He Lifeng, to promote healthier economic competition.

Beijing, which has also been more restrained in its U.S. rhetoric, said Yellen's recent visit had brought "positive expectations for bilateral relations."

Anita Powell and Fang Bing contributed to this report.