At a meeting in Beijing on Friday, China’s leader Xi Jinping exchanged warm smiles with Bill Gates, hailing Mr. Gates as “the first American friend” he met this year.
Meetings in Beijing between Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and his Chinese counterparts starting Sunday are likely to feel noticeably cooler.
The high-level meetings are aimed at getting the US-China relationship back on track, and many American business leaders have been pressing the Biden administration to try to restore some stability to one of the world’s most important bilateral relations.
But to business leaders and officials on both sides, expectations for the meetings appear modest, with two main goals for the talks. One is to restore communication between governments, which was disrupted this year after a Chinese surveillance balloon flew into US airspace and Blinken canceled a scheduled February visit. The other is to stop any further decline in the countries’ relationship.
There is already evidence of the impact of worn ties. Foreign direct investment in China has fallen to a minimum of 18 years. A 2023 survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in China showed that companies still see the Chinese market as a priority, but that their willingness to invest there is waning.
“The economic relationship has gotten so bad that any sign of progress is welcome, although expectations for any kind of progress are low,” said Jake Colvin, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, which represents multinational companies.
“The hope is that high-level dialogues like this one can start to inject some certainty for companies in an increasingly tense and unpredictable business relationship,” he said.
Still, as one of the world’s largest consumer markets and home to many factories that supply global companies, China exerts a powerful pull. This year, as it eased its travel restrictions after three years of pandemic lockdowns, a parade of CEOs took trips to China, including Maria Barra of General Motors, Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase and Blackstone’s Stephen Schwarzman.
On a visit to China this month, Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla and owner of Twitter, described the US and Chinese economies as “joined twins” and said he opposed efforts to divide them. Apple CEO Tim Cook traveled to China in March and praised the “symbiotic” relationship of the company with the nation.
Sam Altman, the leader of OpenAI, which makes the ChatGPT chatbot, appeared virtually at a conference in Beijing this month, saying American and Chinese researchers should continue to work together to counter the risks of artificial intelligence.
The technology industry, which has forged lucrative relationships with Chinese manufacturers and consumers, has warily eyed Washington’s aggressive approach toward China. While industry groups recognize the importance of the moves in safeguarding national security, they have urged the Biden administration to carefully calibrate its actions.
Wendy Cutler, a former diplomat and trade negotiator who is now vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, said the United States and China could announce some small steps at the end of the meetings. Governments might agree, she said, to negligibly increase the number of flights between their countries or the visas they are issuing to foreign visitors.
But both sides will have plenty of grievances to air, Cutler said. Chinese officials are likely to complain about US tariffs on Chinese-made goods and restrictions on US companies selling coveted chip technology to China. US officials may point to China’s deteriorating business environment and its recent move to ban companies handling critical information from buying microchips made by US company Micron.
“I don’t expect any progress, particularly on the economic front,” Cutler said, adding: “Neither side will want to be smiling.”
US officials hope Blinken’s visit will pave the way for more cooperation, including on issues like climate change and restructuring developing countries’ debt burdens. Other officials, including Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen, are considering visits to China this year, and Mr. Xi and President Biden may meet directly at the Group of 20 meetings in Delhi in September or at a Asia-Pacific economic meeting in San Francisco. in November.
In recent months, Biden officials have tried to bridge the gap between the countries by advocating for a more “constructive” relationship. They have echoed European officials in saying that their wish is “elimination of risks and diversification” its economic relations with China, not “decoupling”.
But trust between governments has eroded, and Chinese officials appear skeptical about how much the Biden administration can do to restore ties.
The sweeping US restrictions on semiconductor technology that can be shared with China, which were issued in October, continue to rankle officials in Beijing. The United States has added dozens of Chinese companies to sanctions lists for aiding the Chinese military and the surveillance state, or for circumventing US restrictions on trade with Iran and Russia.
Biden administration officials are weighing more restrictions on China, including a long-overdue order covering certain US venture capital investments. And the White House is facing intense pressure from Congress to do more to end threats to national security emanating from Beijing.
Not all companies are pushing to improve ties. Some with less exposure to China have sought political gain in Washington from the growing competition with the country. Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, has repeatedly raised concerns about TikTok, the Chinese-owned video app that has proven a formidable competitor to Instagram.
“It’s really a title dispute,” said James Lewis, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “How accommodating are you? How conflicted are you?
The aggressiveness with which companies are resisting tensions with China, Lewis said, is linked to their exposure to the country’s market.
“I think a lot of it has to do with their presence in China,” he said.