US President Joe Biden emerged Wednesday from four hours of talks with Chinese leader Xi Jinping confident the fraught US-China relationship was improving, touting agreements on curbing fentanyl production and restoring military communication while still acknowledging that deep strains remain.
Biden said he and Xi had each agreed to pick up the phone and talk during periods of disagreement, and called the talks “some of the most constructive and productive discussions we’ve had.”
Yet departing the summit following a news conference, Biden said he still considered Xi a dictator, despite the progress they’d achieved over the course of their meeting.
The results on fentanyl and military communication were expected ahead of the talks, and amount to important progress in improving the still-tense relationship between Washington and Beijing. During his news conference following the summit, Biden summed up his approach to the Chinese leader.
“Trust but verify, as the old saying goes,” he said. “That’s where I am.”
Biden had aimed to use the meeting to put the US-China relationship on steadier footing after months of tension between the two superpowers. Ahead of the talks, US officials were careful to manage expectations, saying they did not expect a long list of outcomes or even a joint leaders’ statement, as is customary after such summits.
The primary objective for the talks appeared to be the restoration of channels of communication, principally through the military, to avoid the type of miscommunication or miscalculation US officials fear could lead to open conflict
“My responsibility is to make this rational and manageable, so it doesn’t result in conflict. That’s what I’m all about,” Biden said afterward.
Biden said China agreed to go after companies who produce precursor chemicals to fentanyl, the powerful narcotic that has fueled a drug crisis in the United States. The US will watch closely to see if China follows up on the commitments made in the summit.
The president said the agreement from China to reduce precursor chemicals for fentanyl would “save lives” and said he appreciated Xi’s commitment on the issue.
Xi also agreed to mechanisms that would address potential military miscalculations and agreed to forums for the two sides to present their concerns.
Senior Biden administration officials said leading up to Wednesday’s summit that their Chinese counterparts had been “reluctant” over the past few months to agree to re-establishing military-to-military communications.
But it was an issue that Biden himself and his top advisers like Secretary of State Antony Blinken, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin raised in “nearly every conversation we’ve had with the Chinese,” as the US tried to underscore that it was “absolutely critical” that this channel be re-opened.
US officials said that the Chinese spy balloon incident, in particular, underscored the importance of military-to-military communications.
Trying to keep tension from tipping into conflict
Despite a deep and apparently warm personal relationship cultivated during their time as vice presidents – Biden wished Xi’s wife a happy birthday at one point during the summit, with the Chinese leader thanking him for the reminder – the two men have overseen a deterioration in US-China relations to the lowest level in decades.
The talks in California were “very direct” and included more back-and-forth discussion between the two men than their meeting a year ago, a senior US official said. The US president was “very direct” with Xi on a number of topics, the official said, while Xi also raised his concerns about rhetoric inside the United States about China.
According to readouts provided by US officials and Chinese state media, it appeared both leaders were very frank with one another.
Xi at one point called on the United States to “not scheme to suppress or contain China,” Chinese state media reported.
“China has no plans to surpass or unseat the United States, and the United States should not scheme to suppress or contain China,” Xi said, according to a readout released by China’s state news agency Xinhua.
The men had a “substantial” exchange on Taiwan and Xi made clear that concerns over the island were the biggest and most dangerous issue in US-China relations. Xi said China’s preference was for peaceful reunification and laid out conditions under which use of force would be utilized. Biden responded by reiterating the US position was to maintain peace and stability in the region.
“President Xi responded: Look, peace is all well and good, but at some point we need to move towards resolution more generally,” the senior US official said. Xi also urged the US to stop arming Taiwan and support China’s “peaceful reunification,” according to a readout released by Xinhua.
In the meeting, the US asked China to respect Taiwan’s electoral process in the lead-up to a vote in January. Despite continuing concerns about China’s massive military buildup around Taiwan, American officials emerged from the meeting believing Xi was not preparing for a massive invasion.
“Look, I reiterated what I’ve said since I’ve become president, and what every previous president of late has said: That we maintain an agreement that there is a One China policy and that I’m not going to change that. That’s not going to change,” Biden told reporters traveling with him in San Francisco. “And so that’s about the extent to which we discussed it.”
Other areas of discussion
During an exchange over the war between Israel and Hamas, Biden did most of the talking and Xi mostly listened, a senior US official said. Biden encouraged Xi to use China’s leverage with Iran to warn against a wider escalation. In the talks, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said they’d already held discussions with the Iranians on the topic.
It remained unclear to Biden’s aides afterward how seriously Iran was taking China’s messages. In the talks, Biden made clear to Xi that he viewed Hamas as separate from the Palestinians.
In one exchange about restrictions the US has applied on technology exports to China, Xi likened the steps to “technological containment.” Biden responded directly to say the US was not going to provide technology to China that could be used militarily against it.
Biden also raised direct concerns to Xi about harassment of American businesses in China, the official said.
The two men discussed artificial intelligence, and agreed to work together moving ahead on the new technology.
And Biden told Xi it was important China be more transparent on nuclear issues, as it rapidly expands its arsenal.
Biden did not “pull any punches,” the official said, noting Xi experiences little pushback within the Chinese system, adding that the US president was “respectful” but “clear.”
A highly choreographed meeting
With conflicts raging in the Middle East and Europe as he prepares to fight for reelection, Biden hoped to prevent another crisis from exploding on his watch. He was not only looking to demonstrate to Americans – but also to Xi directly – why an improved relationship with Beijing is in everyone’s interests.
“I think it’s paramount that you and I understand each other clearly, leader to leader, with no misconceptions or miscommunication,” Biden told Xi as their talks got underway in a secluded estate south of San Francisco.
Speaking afterward, Xi offered his own view of the complex moment in US-China ties.
“Planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed,” he said.
The optics of the summit were carefully negotiated between the two sides and the formal welcome to the estate was highly choreographed. As host of the meeting, Biden walked out of the building first to welcome Xi. A red carpet had been rolled out, with Marine guards and flags from both countries. The Chinese president’s black sedan pulled up and stopped at the end of the carpet. Xi emerged with a smile and the two men shook hands, each grasping the others’ wrists.
As the meeting got underway, Biden told Xi it is essential the two men have a frank understanding of each other.
Biden said the leaders had a responsibility to their populations to work together, including on issues of climate change, countering narcotics trafficking and approaching artificial intelligence. He added competition between US and China could not tilt toward conflict.
“As always, there is no substitute to face-to-face discussions. I’ve always found our discussions straightforward and frank,” Biden said.
Speaking after Biden, Xi offered starker view of US-China ties.
“The China-US relationship has never been smooth sailing over the past 50 years and more, and it always faces problems of one kind or another. Yet it has kept moving forward amidst twists and turns,” he said through a translator.
“For two large countries like China and the United States, turning their back on each other is not an option,” he went on. “It is unrealistic for one side to remodel the other and conflict and confrontation has unbearable consequences for both sides.”
Seeming to reject Biden’s view of “competition” between the US and China, Xi said he was “still of the view that major country competition is not the prevailing trend of current times and cannot solve the problems facing China and the United States or the world at large.”
A political tight rope
For the better part of the last year, US officials have been laying the groundwork for the summit. With the aim of reestablishing diplomatic channels between the two countries, Sullivan has met with Wang three times, while Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and US climate envoy John Kerry have all traveled to Beijing.
The overtures have been extended in the other direction too, with China’s senior-most officials – including its foreign minister – traveling to the US to meet with their American counterparts. US officials said that working-level consultations had been established with Beijing on especially sensitive topics like arms control and maritime issues.
Sources familiar with those efforts say that Washington has seen signs in recent months that the Chinese are beginning to accept the wisdom of both countries working together to strengthen their lines of communication and mitigate misunderstandings.
Still, as Biden was preparing for Wednesday’s summit, Republicans questioned his decision to seek a meeting with Xi. Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor seeking the GOP presidential nomination, claimed Biden had “begged” for the meeting.
Republicans on a House select committee on China sent Biden a letter spelling out areas they believe he must challenge Xi, including wrongful detention of Americans and the production of fentanyl.
Biden and his aides are acutely aware of the political backdrop for his meeting. Sullivan said Biden was “looking for … practical ways to show the American people that sitting down with Xi Jinping can defend American interests and also deliver progress on the priorities of the American people.”
This story has been updated with additional developments on Wednesday.