Six years on from cake at Mar-a-Lago, China’s Xi returns to a much warier US

Six years after enjoying a slice of chocolate cake during their first face-to-face meeting at Mar-a-Lago, Chinese President Xi Jinping returns to the US this week facing a hostile political landscape and a potentially testy summit with Joe Biden.

The two leaders are expected to meet at the White House for a cordial, but potentially tense, gathering on Thursday. Biden, who has taken a much firmer stance on China than his predecessor, is set to press Xi on issues including human rights abuses, access to technology and trade.

When Xi visited in 2015, he was welcomed with great pomp and ceremony at the Florida estate of then-President Donald Trump. The pair enjoyed a gale-force handshake and a sit-down dinner – including that now-iconic cake.

But since then, the relationship between the two countries has become increasingly strained. During Trump’s tenure, Beijing and Washington clashed over a range of issues, with the US slapping over $86 billion in trade tariffs on Chinese exports.

The Biden administration is taking a more measured approach. While still firm on its criticism of China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, it has attempted to emphasis the need for dialogue and diplomacy to ease the frayed tensions between the two countries.

But the visit will remain a game of diplomatic chess, as both sides attempt to gain an upper hand on key issues. While Xi is likely to push for an easing of trade tariffs and market access for Chinese firms, Biden is likely to press for greater transparency and human rights reforms. The outcome of the visit — and the decisions made from it — could shape the relationship between the US and China for years to come.