Biden says ‘real progress’ made after meeting with China’s Xi Jinping

SAN FRANCISCO — President Joe Biden met face-to-face with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, on Wednesday and said afterward they had agreed to revive dormant military communication channels, crack down on fentanyl trafficking, and work jointly to address rapid advances in artificial intelligence.

The four-hour summit broke a yearlong silence marked by rising tensions that have stoked fears that the two countries are on a path toward direct conflict.

At a news conference afterward, Biden said, “I believe they were some of the most productive and constructive discussions we’ve had.”

Having gone a full year without speaking, much less meeting in person, the two leaders agreed that they could now pick up the phone and call each other directly when needed, Biden said.

The summit took place at the 654-acre Filoli estate in Woodside, California, about 35 miles south of San Francisco, where the two leaders are also taking part in a separate summit meeting of Asian-Pacific nations.

After a formal session with top advisers, Xi and Biden met again for a working lunch and later walked the grounds together in front of the cameras. They passed reporters at one point and in response to a shouted question about how the talks were going, Biden said, “Well,” and gave a thumbs-up.

There were no breakthroughs, however, on some longstanding issues — chiefly, the status of Taiwan — that have soured relations between the world’s two largest economic powers. Nor was there any sign that Biden was reassessing his belief that China is a formidable and potentially dangerous competitor.

He cautioned that he won’t accept at face value Chinese promises to cooperate. When a reporter asked if trusted Xi, Biden repeated a phrase that former President Ronald Reagan used when negotiating arms control accords with the old Soviet Union in the 1980s: “Trust but verify.”

Asked at the news conference whether Biden saw Xi as a dictator — the term Biden used to describe Xi over the summer — Biden said, “He is a dictator.” Xi runs a communist country whose system is fundamentally different than that of the U.S., Biden added.

“We’re in a competitive relationship, China and the United States, but my responsibility is to make this rational and manageable, so it doesn’t result in conflict,” Biden said earlier. “That’s what I’m all about. That’s what this is about.”

Still, Biden hailed the three areas in which both sides reached consensus.

The U.S. discussed with China a plan to cut down the flow of fentanyl precursors that are contributing to an illegal drug scourge in the U.S., according to a senior administration official who briefed the press pool.

“The president basically said, look this one of the worst drug problems the United States has ever faced. Tens of thousands of American perishing annually,” the official said.

After close calls between Chinese and American warships and planes, U.S. officials are delighted that China will re-open military communication lines.

When announcing the resumption of military-to-military talks, which aim to prevent inadvertent conflict, Biden said that “vital miscalculations” can cause “real trouble.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will meet with China’s defense minister, once the person is named, the U.S. official said. China’s previous defense minister, Li Shangfu, departed the administration weeks ago. Li had been sanctioned by the U.S.

The official also said that the countries are establishing “operational engagements,” allowing senior military commanders to engage with counterparts.

Taiwan remains a knotty problem for both sides. Xi wants to unify China and Taiwan, the self-ruling democracy that China claims as its own. While Biden’s “one China” policy does not favor Taiwan independence, he has objected to what he sees as aggressive military actions that have menaced Taiwan.

Biden asked that China respect Taiwan’s electoral process ahead of the island’s presidential election in January. In response, Xi argued that peace is “all well and good,” but eventually they needed to move toward resolution, the U.S. official said.

Hua Chunying, a Chinese official who attended the larger bilateral meeting, said in a post to X that Xi said the “Taiwan question remains the most important and most sensitive issue in China-U.S. relations.”

She added that the U.S. should “support China’s peaceful reunification.”

“China will realize reunification, and this is unstoppable,” she said in the post.

The two men greeted one another at 11:15 a.m. local time. As Xi left his limousine, he walked toward the historic country house along a red carpet and was greeted by Biden, who had arrived earlier and was awaiting him in the doorway. The two briefly shook hands and waved to the media corps before they entered the building.

Inside, they faced each other across a long rectangular table, with Chinese and American flags at the far end. They were flanked by their respective delegations. Biden sat between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.

In his opening remarks, Biden said previous meetings between the two leaders have “always been candid, straightforward and useful.” He said competition between China and the U.S. must not veer into conflict, a point he has been stressing for months.

President Joe Biden shakes hand with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, in Woodside, Calif., on Wednesday.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

“I value our conversation because I think it’s paramount that you and I understand each other clearly, leader to leader, with no misconceptions or miscommunication,” Biden said.

Xi spoke next. Through an interpreter, he said that the two countries have the most important bilateral relationship in the world.

“For two large countries like China and the United States, turning their back on each other is not an option,” Xi said. “It is unrealistic for one side to remodel the other, and conflicts and confrontation has unbearable consequences for both sides.”

The summit featured a few lighter moments. Biden will turn 81 on Monday. Xi’s wife shares the same birth date. When Biden said he wished her a happy birthday, Xi said he had been working so hard that he’d forgotten. He thanked Biden for the reminder, the official said. After the news conference, Biden was scheduled to attend an evening reception in San Francisco for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders, which Vice President Kamala Harris and first lady Jill Biden will also attend.

The summit is the first time the two presidents have meet since a three-hour session on the sidelines of a summit in Bali, Indonesia, a year ago. The visit is also the first time Xi has stepped foot in the U.S. since 2017.

In the hours before the meeting, John Kirby, a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council, told reporters: “I think we’re all expecting that this will be a productive discussion today. And hopefully, a precursor to much more communication and dialogue between our two teams going forward.”

Over the past year, relations between the U.S. and China have deteriorated in ways that elevate the risk of an unwanted confrontation, U.S. officials said. As an example, when the Biden administration shot down a Chinese spy balloon that flew across the United States in February, the Pentagon had no one in China to contact because Beijing had closed an important military communications channel, a senior Biden administration official told reporters Tuesday while previewing the Biden-Xi meeting.

“It is true that when the Chinese spy balloon went across the United States, we had no way to communicate with the Chinese,” the official said. “That’s not responsible and we hope to at least take some preliminary steps” toward improving communications.

Image: President Joe Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping President Joe Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ week in Woodside, Calif., on Wednesday.Brendan Smialowski / AFP – Getty Images

U.S. officials believe that Biden entered the meeting from a position of strength. While the Chinese economy is struggling with high youth unemployment and disinvestment from foreign companies, Biden has boasted of robust economic growth in the U.S., accompanied by a low jobless rate.

After he arrived in San Francisco on Tuesday, Biden attended an evening fundraising event in which he said: “President Xi is another example of how re-establishing American leadership in the world is taking hold. They’ve got real problems, folks.”

Preparation for the summit was months in the making. In the run-up, Blinken had given priority to resuming military-to-military talks with China, as well as curbing the flow of narcotics into the U.S., according to a U.S. official involved with China policy. Blinken raised the issues directly with Chinese officials four times since his visit to China in June, including with top Xi administration officials Vice President Han Zheng and Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi.

When Wang visited the U.S., Blinken described a Chinese fighter jet’s close call with a U.S. warplane flying in international airspace over the South China Sea. He noted that the leaders were sitting at a table about 10 feet long — the same distance between the two aircrafts during the near collision, the source said. Blinken used the anecdote to illustrate the risk of an accidental collision and show why the two countries need to revive military communication channels.

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