SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — The first meeting between President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in a year ended with agreements to curb fentanyl, restore military-to-military communications, and begin expert discussions on the safety and risks of artificial intelligence.
Biden outlined the agreements at a news conference Wednesday evening in San Francisco following over four hours of meetings with Xi and their top advisers, calling the military communications “critically important” to avoid potentially deadly miscalculations. Biden said he also raised more contentious subjects, like China’s actions in the Taiwan strait, human rights, and Americans detained in China, and that he and Xi agreed to keep open lines of communication.
“We’re in a competitive relationship,” Biden said. “But my responsibility is to make this rational and manageable so it doesn’t result in conflict.”
The two sides also reached an agreement to resume climate talks and ramp up renewables the day prior.
Wednesday’s meeting came on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum in San Francisco and was held at the Filoli estate, a grand property on the California coast famously used for filming the television series “Dynasty” in the 1980s.
Even before the announcements, some argued the meeting — which U.S. officials characterized as an effort to stabilize relations — was a success because of the signals both sides sent to one another about the need for frank communication.
At the start of the meeting, Biden addressed Xi by stressing the importance of dialogue in order to avoid “misconceptions or miscommunication.” Xi, through a translator, said that China and the U.S. could not turn “their back on each other.” “Planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed, and one country’s success is an opportunity for the other,” he told Biden.
“I think that’s about as good a floor you can hope for in this relationship,” Anja Manuel, executive director of the Aspen Security Forum, told Semafor.
Xi also attended a dinner with a large group of American executives in San Francisco later Wednesday evening, amid concerns among some executives about the business climate in China due to a crackdown on foreign firms.
The scene in San Francisco was lively in anticipation for the meeting. Throngs of supporters of the Falun Gong religious movement that protests the Chinese government lined the streets downtown, while pro and anti-China demonstrators were seen near the Filoli estate where the two leaders and their top advisers gathered.
Wednesday’s meeting was the first time that Biden and Xi spoke or saw one another in person since the summit in Bali last November. It was long in the making, with a steady stream of officials from both governments traveling to meet their counterparts to ease tensions and open lines of communication after the flight of a Chinese spy balloon over the United States earlier this year derailed progress made in Indonesia.
The meeting met the modest expectations that the White House set for it. The pronouncements of the two leaders will also likely satisfy business leaders who were looking for assurances from the U.S. and China of their economic ties.
But it will take time to tell whether the dialogue actually helps stabilize the relationship, which has been dominated by tensions over technology controls, China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, and Taiwan.
“We really don’t know how successful this summit will be,” Max Baucus, former U.S. ambassador to China under the Obama administration, told Semafor. It will depend on whether words are followed by actions, he said. Josh Rogin reminds us in the Washington Post that Xi signed a similar agreement on fentanyl with former President Donald Trump but didn’t enforce it.
“Trust but verify, as the old saying goes. That’s where I am,” Biden said at the press conference on Wednesday afternoon when asked if he trusted Xi.
Upcoming elections in Taiwan and the U.S. presidential election — both events that could cause more friction in the U.S.-China relationship — will also provide critical tests. Attacking China is increasingly popular among U.S. politicians, and lawmakers from both parties blame Beijing for doing harm to the U.S. through unfair economic practices and are sharply critical of China for human rights abuses against Uyghurs in Xinjiang and for threats against Taiwan. A return to the White House by Trump, who waged an intense trade with China during his first time, could quickly upend whatever progress the two countries make in their relationship over the next year.
While the Biden administration is critical of China on human rights and other issues, officials have been firm that the U.S. should not decouple from China, one of its largest trading partners, and that the economic relationship between the two countries — aside from goods that impact U.S. national security — is important to preserve.
“It’s going to take a lot of effort on the part of both sides if they really want to make it work. It’s very much like an arranged marriage,” Baucus said. “We’re very different but we’re very big and neither country is going anywhere.”
The View From Taiwan
Taiwan’s two opposition parties agreed to join forces this week against Vice President William Lai, who is running for the pro-sovereignty Democratic Progressive Party ticket. Lai has been leading in the polls, but the development raises the prospect of a more China-friendly candidate to emerge victorious from the January elections. That could have dramatic repercussions on the U.S.-China relationship, given a key point of tension has been U.S. support for Taiwan and the prospect of Beijing trying to take over the self-governing island by force.