U.S. looks to China to commit to working together on fentanyl crisis as Biden, Xi prepare to meet

WASHINGTON — The U.S. is hoping to announce a new commitment from China to stem the flow of fentanyl into the U.S. and the resumption of some communication between the two countries’ militaries when President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet next week, according to two people familiar with the discussions.

China, for its part, expects a commitment from Biden that his administration would not intervene in efforts by Taiwan toward independence, a former U.S. official said.

Beijing also received a much-desired meeting between Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and her Chinese counterpart, Vice Premier He Lifeng, this week — a sit-down he is expected to use to try to assess the scope and scale of upcoming restrictions on U.S. investment in China in several high-tech industries, a current U.S. official and a former U.S. official said.

Yellen is in the process of finalizing those regulations, which were mandated in an executive order Biden signed in August.  

One possibility for new cooperation on fentanyl is the establishment of a joint working group to try to tackle the issue, the two people familiar with the discussions said. 

An announcement on military communications between Washington and Beijing, which have been cold for months, is expected to include the resumption of the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA), under which the two countries discuss safety in the waters of the Asia-Pacific including the South China Sea, two defense officials said.

The U.S. and China signed the MMCA charter in 1998. It focuses on safety of ships, aircraft and personnel at sea and is intended to open communications at an operator-to-operator level to discuss cases of unsafe unprofessional behavior. But China’s military has canceled the past few MMCA dialogues, which U.S. defense officials say increases the chances of a collision or miscalculation. 

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin may also receive a long-requested conversation with his Chinese counterpart, the two defense officials said.

The breakthrough would come just weeks after Xi ousted Defense Minister Li Shangfu. Li had been under U.S. sanctions since the Trump administration, which was a point of contention between the U.S. and China and fueled China’s refusal to engage with Austin.

The Pentagon requested a meeting between a senior Chinese official and Austin at the ASEAN summit in Jakarta next week, but the Chinese government has not responded yet, according to the two defense officials. 

The White House declined to comment, and the Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The meeting between Biden and Xi, which China has not officially confirmed, is the capstone to a monthslong effort by Biden administration officials to mend deeply strained relations. The two leaders have not met face-to-face in a year.

Their November 2022 meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, was intended to reduce elevated tensions. At the time, the White House said Biden and Xi “spoke candidly about their respective priorities” for three hours, via interpreters. 

They agreed that Secretary of State Antony Blinken would visit China to follow up on discussions, but that trip in February was abruptly scrapped after the U.S. shot down a Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina.  

Biden said in the days after that he intended to speak to Xi by phone, but that call never materialized. The president was talked out of seeking the call, NBC News has reported.

Blinken eventually visited China, months later, followed by other top U.S. officials including Yellen and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, in an attempt to re-establish key communication channels. 

Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to China, said recently that there are “some bright spots” and “some more difficult issues” in the U.S.-China relationship and stressed the importance of maintaining a dialogue.

“I do think we’ve made some progress in reconnecting the two governments and establishing these leadership channels, which we didn’t have, frankly, a year ago,” Burns said. “We’re the two most powerful governments in the world. We’ve got to be communicating.”

Earlier this year, the White House had eyed the September G20 summit in New Delhi, India, as a possibility for a follow-up between Biden and Xi, but the Chinese president skipped the gathering altogether. 

Biden has indicated, since May, that he expected to meet with Xi in person at some point before the end of the year, with senior administration officials pointing to a global summit as the most likely venue for that. 

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