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Ahead of meeting between Biden and China's Xi Jinping, expectations are low

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For the first time since Biden became president, he will sit down with China's leader, Xi Jinping. This is taking place at the G-20 summit in Indonesia tomorrow, and it comes at a time when the U.S. and China are dueling over human rights, trade and technology. NPR's Emily Feng is covering this summit in Bali, Indonesia, and she's with us now. Emily, thanks so much for being here.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: All right. This meeting between Biden and Xi, the U.S. and China, is highly anticipated. In many ways. It's completely overshadowed the other agenda items at the G-20 summit this year. Can you tell us why it's such a big deal?

FENG: It's a big deal because these two leaders are meeting at a time when U.S.-China relations are really starting to look more and more like a Cold War, especially after last month, when the U.S. imposed dramatic tech curbs on what kinds of semiconductor technology could be sold and used in China. And they're also meeting at a time where both men have just laid out these competing visions of how they believe the world should work. For Biden, he's just come out of the midterm elections, which he cast as a fight over preserving American democracy. And he's now on this tour of the Indo-Pacific to ensure the U.S.-led world order remains intact here.

And for Xi Jinping, he's just secured this landmark third term as head of China's ruling Communist Party, which is a sign of just the remarkable consolidation of power he now has in one of the largest countries on earth. So this meeting, not to overdramatize it a little bit, but it's kind of a showdown between these two superpowers. And the question facing these two men when they get together in a room tomorrow is, despite all their disagreements, is there anything they can still agree on? And are there any guardrails in the relationship - these red lines that Biden's team has been calling them - that they can find to stop the relationship from deteriorating into an all-out cold war?

MARTIN: So what is on the agenda? What are they expected to discuss?

FENG: There's a whole list of issues, and they're all really big. So they're going to talk about the war in Ukraine, which China has tried to stay neutral on, even though it's pursuing a partnership with Russia. North Korea is going to come up because it's fired more than 60 missile tests this year, and it's an ally of China. So the U.S. is going to push China to rein in Pyongyang. They might talk about climate change. But in general, this is about putting a floor in the relationship. Biden likes to stress that he has a special relationship with Xi Jinping because the two men have spent days traveling together when they were both vice presidents. Here's Biden earlier today from Cambodia, where he's meeting with other Asian leaders in the run-up to meet Xi Jinping.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And I know Xi Jinping. I've spent more time with him than any other world leader. I know him well. He knows me. There's no - we have very little misunderstanding. We just got to figure out where the red lines are and what we - what are the most important things to each of us.

FENG: But a lot has changed in the decades since he was vice president. And the White House is really stressing its expectations for this meeting are very modest. And the chances of this meeting actually creating some kind of detente in the U.S.-China relationship are very, very low, especially because of this issue of Taiwan.

MARTIN: Emily, before we let you go, please tell us more about that. What is going on with Taiwan?

FENG: Taiwan, this democratic island that China has long said belongs to China - and as recently as last month, Xi Jinping says he reserves the right to use military force to take over the island if he needs to. President Biden, over the last year, has broken with longstanding U.S. foreign policy and said multiple times the U.S. would come to Taiwan's defense if China did that. But that's only reinforced this belief in China that the U.S. is dead set one day on recognizing Taiwan as a country and using that to contain China. So later, Biden and Xi Jinping are definitely going to discuss Taiwan. But on this issue, there's a lot that's simply out of Biden's control. For example, if Republican candidates win more seats in the midterms this year or if they even win the presidency in two years, they are almost definitely going to push an even more aggressive pro-Taiwan and anti-China policy.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Emily Feng in Bali, Indonesia. Emily, thank you so much.

FENG: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.