Chinese leader Xi Jinping will meet US President Biden this week amid the most difficult period of Xi’s tenure. With growing problems at home and abroad, Xi appears eager to ease tensions with the US.
The two leaders will hold talks on Wednesday at the G20 summit, their first in-person meeting in over a year. When they last met in November 2021, Xi seemed firmly in control. Now he faces rising economic troubles and social unrest.
After securing a norm-breaking third term in October, Xi quickly moved to install loyalists and consolidate power. But a year of policy missteps and unforeseen crises have weakened his position.
At home, Xi’s strict zero-COVID policies led to rare public protests calling for his resignation. His abrupt lifting of restrictions then caused chaos and unknown deaths.
The economy is sputtering, with declining foreign investment, high youth unemployment and a property crisis. China may miss its 5% GDP growth target amid slow consumer spending.
Abroad, tensions with the US have continued rising amid worsening frictions over Taiwan, technology, trade and human rights. The risk of conflict remains heightened.
Xi Seeks US Rapprochement
Analysts say Xi urgently needs to stabilize ties with the US for breathing room to address domestic woes. He appears more willing to engage after a year of deteriorating relations.
With his authority seemingly secure for now, Xi can afford to take a conciliatory tone with Biden. Reduced external tensions would give him space to refocus inward.
But fundamental differences remain between Beijing and Washington across security, economic and ideological fronts. Any détente could prove temporary unless core disputes are resolved.
After consolidating power, Xi may feel even less pressure to compromise on issues like Taiwan, Hong Kong, and technology competition. Vulnerability could make him more, not less, defiant with the US.
Still, China has made overtures signaling a desire to prevent further deterioration in relations with its largest trading partner. State media recently ran articles on the importance of US-China cooperation.
Xi’s String of Setbacks
Xi was riding high last November, finally resuming overseas trips after years of zero-COVID isolation. He held meetings with over 20 heads of state, projecting confidence in China’s rise.
What a difference a year made. Beyond economic troubles and the unpopular zero-COVID policy, Xi has faced embarrassments on the world stage.
The appearance of a suspected Chinese spy balloon over the US caused an uproar and forced the postponement of a visit by Secretary of State Blinken. US officials say the incursion happened without Xi’s approval.
Meanwhile, the sudden purges of China’s top diplomat and defense minister hinted at possible turmoil beneath the surface. Their removals disrupted foreign policy coordination.
Xi’s prolonged absence at the BRICS emerging economies summit in August sparked speculation about potential opposition in Beijing. Rumors swirled, likely overblown, about attempts to undermine Xi.
At home, the death of former Premier Li Keqiang prompted public mourning that implicitly rebuked Xi’s state-driven policies. Xi appears increasingly isolated atop China’s opaque political system.
With Xi breaking succession norms by installing himself as ruler for life, blame for policy failures and economic troubles falls squarely on him. If discontent keeps spreading, his authority could steadily erode.
Navigating a Treacherous Year Ahead
In the next year, Xi must navigate several potential pitfalls that could further weaken his standing if mishandled. Beyond the economic woes, diplomatic tensions and COVID aftermath, other challenges loom.
Taiwan’s presidential election in January could spark renewed tensions or even military escalation. Xi’s crackdowns in Hong Kong also continue alienating Western powers.
At the same time, the US presidential election in 2024 will pressure both Xi and Biden to appear tough on their rival superpower. This could limit any reconciliation efforts.
Xi remains firmly entrenched as China’s most powerful leader in decades. But his image of strength and wisdom has taken hits throughout a tumultuous year.
With Xi’s legitimacy tied directly to China’s prosperity and global stature, further stumbles could steadily undermine confidence in his leadership. For now, however, his dominance within the party appears intact.
Seeking to arrest any erosion in authority, Xi will likely strive for positive outcomes from the G20 meeting and other engagements with Biden. Even minor progress in easing US tensions could be spun as a political win.
But with deep systemic differences dividing the two powers, any deal would likely only paper over cracks. As Xi consolidates control, he seems ever less willing to compromise on issues of sovereignty and national pride.
For the US, caution will remain warranted in assessing Xi’s gestures. Beneath the surface, he has only tightened his grasp on power. And with it, he has centralized responsibility for China’s future on himself.Copy