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President Biden to sit down in California with China's leader Xi Jinping

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Somewhere in California today, President Biden meets China's leader, Xi Jinping. We're not being told the exact location yet for security reasons. Xi is in the United States for a big meeting of Pacific Rim leaders, but this separate meeting between the leaders of the two dominant powers in the Pacific and around the world may mean more. Relations are so bad that President Biden says he wants to talk about talking. He wants to make sure that he can get China's leader on the phone in a crisis and wants to make sure the two militaries can talk with one another. Patricia Kim is our next guest. She focuses on U.S.-China relations at the Brookings Institution. Good morning.

PATRICIA KIM: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How big a deal is it that these two militaries have not been talking?

KIM: Well, Steve, I think it is a big deal, given Chinese and U.S. forces, as well as the forces of U.S. partners, are operating every day in close proximity to each other in hotspots like the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea and the East China Sea.

INSKEEP: So the idea here is that the - an American general would want to be able to call his or her Chinese counterpart and say, listen, let's not start a nuclear war over this. I mean, that's really the issue here, isn't it?

KIM: Absolutely. And that just hasn't been possible in recent months, especially since Speaker Pelosi's visit to Taiwan, when China cut all the dialogues between the two militaries. There were dialogues between working-level defense officials, a dialogue around maritime safety issues, between theater commanders, and all of these were cut. And so the United States has been keen to restore these channels of communications, which it believes are essential for avoiding miscalculations and reducing the risks of conflict.

INSKEEP: Is it right that even the presidents haven't been talking?

KIM: Well the presidents - right, they have not met in a year. So this would be the first time they've met since they saw each other in Bali last November. But the two sides have been ramping up diplomatic communications, and we've seen a number of high-level officials from the U.S. side going over to China and Chinese officials coming back to the U.S.

INSKEEP: I want to think about the U.S. approach to China and how it might be received in China. President Biden has said that he wants to cooperate where possible, while also recognizing that there's a rivalry. And, of course, the United States has taken a lot of steps in the last couple of years, ramping up competition over computer chips, just to name something, blocking a lot of technology transfer of various kinds to China. Are the Chinese feeling these moves?

KIM: I think they are. I think they are. They are worried about the export restrictions that the U.S. has imposed. They are worried about the downward trajectory of the U.S.-China relationship. And so I do think that Xi's visit to the United States now is about trying to stabilize the U.S.-China relationship. I think they realize now is not the time to rock the boat with the U.S., especially as they face economic headwinds at home. And there's also been a lot of turbulence in the Chinese political system, with a number of high-level officials being dismissed. And so there's a desire to maybe not fundamentally reset but to tactically stabilize the U.S.-China relationship.

INSKEEP: You know, I'm glad you mentioned those two terms you just - you talked about economic headwinds. You talked about political turbulence. Evan Osnos of The New Yorker had a long account of multiple visits to China in recent months and talking with people at all levels of society and comes out with a sense that a lot of Chinese think that they're in decline, that this country that seemed to be on the rise just a few years ago has now been clamped down upon by Xi's leadership and seems to be economically struggling a little bit. Do you think that a Chinese leader would go into a meeting like this with the president of the United States feeling that his country is in some kind of trouble?

KIM: Well, I don't know if he would state that in public, but I think it is the fact that the Chinese economy is not performing as well as it did in the past. There is low business and consumer confidence. There's record-low youth unemployment. And I think during the COVID times, there was a lot of trust that was lost by the Chinese people in their government with these very draconian zero-COVID policies - whether they're rich or poor or somewhere in the middle, that there was nothing they could do when there were these extreme lockdowns. And so what I hear from my Chinese counterparts is that a lot of trust has been lost, and there's still a lot of shock around the pandemic years. And so I think that's the sort of the environment that exists in China.

INSKEEP: Is this a zero-sum game, meaning is that trouble in China good for the United States in some way?

KIM: You know, I don't think necessarily it is good. I think that the U.S. does have an interest in a stable China. It doesn't have an interest in a China where there's chaos at home or that it's feeling nervous and might seek for more adventures abroad. I don't think there is interest in that. I do think there's a genuine interest on both sides in stabilizing this relationship and opening up channels of communication.

INSKEEP: Patricia Kim of the Brookings Institution. Thanks for your insights.

KIM: Sure. Thanks to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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