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Image: CNBC

The United States and China are taking steps to pave the way for a potential summit between President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping later this year. This comes amid tentative efforts by both sides to stabilize relations after months of tensions across numerous fronts.

According to people briefed on the matter, Beijing and Washington are discussing a visit to the U.S. by Xi’s top economic policy aide, Vice Premier Liu He. Liu would be the highest-ranking Chinese official to travel to the U.S. since Biden took office. Meanwhile, preparations are underway for Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to visit Washington in October to lay the groundwork for a Xi-Biden presidential summit, sources said.

China also facilitated the transfer this week of an American soldier from North Korean custody, U.S. officials confirmed. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan had raised the soldier’s case during a meeting with Wang 10 days prior, the officials noted.

These latest developments indicate growing momentum for Xi to potentially attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders summit slated for November in San Francisco. More broadly, Beijing is seeking a separate high-profile bilateral summit with Biden, which both sides believe could help stabilize the relationship after months of tensions.

“Progress in relations remains tentative, with deep-seated suspicion and entrenched differences on most issues,” said Ryan Hass, a China expert at the Brookings Institution. “If senior visits materialize, the odds of a leader summit will continue rising.”

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China has recently played hard-to-get to gain leverage, criticizing the U.S. for not inviting Beijing’s handpicked Hong Kong leader to APEC, per past custom. “The U.S. should show openness, fairness and responsibility,” said Wang.

Beijing continues aligning with Moscow against the West. Putin will meet Xi in Beijing in October for a Belt and Road infrastructure summit. “Both sides will likely take justified actions the other sees as provocative,” said Hass.

The push for engagement is driven by a mutual desire for stability and showing allies progress in the relationship. The Biden administration wants to manage tensions and prevent conflict over Taiwan especially.

Xi also wants to reassure China’s public he has relations under control, particularly amid economic troubles. He hopes restoring economic talks may slow U.S. technology restrictions on China.

“Beijing is eager to avoid escalation during the U.S. election season,” said IMF’s former China head Eswar Prasad.

Last week, both sides announced working groups on economic issues, a product of Yellen’s Beijing visit in July. This restores regular high-level economic dialogue frozen since 2018.

Wang recently skipped the U.N. General Assembly in New York, where he was expected for summit preparations. China sent Vice President Han Zheng, who discussed Xi-Biden plans with Blinken.

In a positive signal, China’s state media published a letter from Xi to U.S. World War II veterans extolling “profound friendship” between the nations.

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“China and the U.S. bear important responsibilities for world peace,” Xi wrote.

Deep Mistrust Remains an Obstacle

However, deep suspicion on both sides continues hindering meaningful progress. China remains aligned with Russia against the U.S. and its allies. Just last week, Beijing joined Moscow in naval exercises, underscoring their strategic partnership.

Sources say Xi intends to meet Putin in person in Beijing next month. This demonstrates that although Xi may sit down with Biden, China remains committed to countering U.S. global dominance.

“We will witness both sides taking justified actions the other sees as provocative,” said Asia expert Hass. “If high-level visits occur, the odds of a summit will keep rising.”

Meanwhile, human rights will remain a major sticking point. The White House called on Beijing this week to end repression of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, stating new evidence indicates genocide.

U.S. Balances Competition With Cooperation

Administration officials stress Biden will engage Beijing in principled competition. The goal is managing differences to prevent catastrophic conflict, while defending U.S. interests.

“There is no substitute for leader-to-leader communication,” said State Department spokesperson Matt Miller. But he declined to confirm a summit is imminent.

Beijing hopes to convince Washington to ease restrictions on technology transfers. But the White House remains deeply skeptical of Xi’s economic policies. And Congress takes an increasingly hard line against China.

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While the Biden team wants stability with Beijing, it will continue fighting for fair trade, defending Taiwan, and criticizing human rights abuses. Meanwhile, Xi shows no sign of reversing authoritarian policies.

Navigating intense competition while maintaining cooperation on shared interests will prove a delicate balancing act. Any miscalculation risks escalation neither side wants.

Cautious Optimism Despite Major Obstacles

Most experts remain cautious, but hopeful, about prospects for a meeting of the leaders. Restarting economic talks and freeing the U.S. soldier were modest but meaningful goodwill gestures.

Plans for Wang and Liu’s Washington visits signal commitment to putting ties on steadier ground. Both sides share an interest in avoiding uncontrolled deterioration.

But deep differences on security, human rights, technology, and competing visions for the Asia-Pacific order won’t disappear overnight.

Managing intense competition while preventing catastrophic conflict will require firm resolve and skillful diplomacy on both sides. Leaders meeting in person could help set a constructive tone.

For now, a fragile warming of relations is visible. But the relationship remains filled with uncertainty as suspicions run high. Whether a Xi-Biden summit proves possible or fruitful remains to be seen.

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