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Biden will meet with Xi amid high tensions from U.S. support for Taiwan

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

President Biden will meet tomorrow with China's Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Indonesia. The high-stakes meeting is months in the making and comes as relations between the two superpowers have soured. Here with us now is NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, who is traveling with the president. Good morning, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So Presidents Biden and Xi have spoken many times, going back to the Obama administration, but this will be their first time meeting in person since Biden became president. What are the objectives here?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, the two have spoken several times since Biden took office as well - virtually, of course - but it hasn't actually helped resolve some of the big differences that they have over trade, Russia's war in Ukraine and particularly Taiwan. As we've said before, Biden puts a high premium on face-to-face diplomacy, and the White House is hoping if they can get them in a room together, they can find some level of understanding and soften that intensity.

Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, tells reporters aboard Air Force One that it's a chance to bring the conversation to a different strategic level.

JAKE SULLIVAN: He'll have that opportunity to sit, be totally straightforward and direct and to hear President Xi be totally straightforward and direct in return, and try to come out of that meeting with a better understanding and a way to responsibly manage this relationship and the competition between the U.S. and the PRC.

ORDOÑEZ: Now, Ayesha, he expects the conversation to be about two hours but says not to expect any significant changes in the relationship. He does believe, though, that there will be important clarifications made - as he put it, a sharpening of Beijing's perspective, as well as better understanding of the U.S. position.

RASCOE: So much of these tensions relate to Taiwan. How will that come up in these conversations?

ORDOÑEZ: It's going to be a key part of the discussions. President Biden says he won't make any concessions over U.S. support for Taiwan, and that's not necessarily going to go over well. China considers the island part of its territory and has been threatening to forcibly take control of the island. The U.S. maintains diplomatic relations with China, but the U.S. also has an unofficial relationship with Taiwan. And Biden has repeatedly suggested that the U.S. will defend Taiwan if attacked by China. Beijing was particularly outraged over a visit this summer to Taiwan by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And I'll just add that the last time the two leaders spoke, ahead of the Pelosi visit, she warned Biden that, quote, "those who play with fire will perish by it."

RASCOE: It's hard to imagine tensions getting any higher between the two leaders. So what can they reasonably accomplish?

ORDOÑEZ: Right. I mean, there are plenty of reasons for skepticism. I spoke with Bonnie Glaser, who is the director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. She says it's going to be difficult for Biden to make significant inroads with Beijing.

BONNIE GLASER: They haven't shown any willingness to do anything with this administration, and in part because they think this administration is implacably hostile toward them.

ORDOÑEZ: Now, the White House is certainly trying to keep expectations low as well. Several officials have told us reporters not to expect any joint statements to come out of the meetings or any so-called deliverables.

RASCOE: In the about 30 seconds we'll have left, you know, Biden did better than expected in the midterm. Xi was also appointed to a third term. How does the domestic politics in both countries impact the discussions?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, it gives them both more confidence. There were concerns that Xi would have the upper hand, but that's not the case so much anymore. You know, another point that Jake Sullivan made is that because of how Xi has consolidated his power, the White House really sees him as the only one in Beijing who has any real authority to make decisions. That's why the meeting is so important. The White House wants to stop the downward spiral in the relationship and find some common areas where they can work together, such as climate and containing the threat posed by North Korea.

RASCOE: That's White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Thank you so much.

ORDOÑEZ: Thanks, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.