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President Biden and China President Xi Jinping wrap up their high-stakes summit

Nov 15, 2023, 5:04 PM

US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping wrapped up their high-stakes meeting in fou...

US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping wrapped up their high-stakes meeting in four hours. (CNN)

(CNN)

CNN) — The high-stakes summit between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping wrapped up after roughly four hours.

Biden had aimed to use the meeting to put the US-China relationship on steadier footing after months of tension between the two superpowers.

With conflicts raging in the Middle East and Europe as he prepares to fight for reelection, Biden hopes to prevent another crisis from exploding on his watch. He is 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.

Welcome

Biden welcomed his Chinese counterpart warmly outside a Georgian revival-style mansion. 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. Xi’s black sedan pulled up and stopped at the end of the carpet. The Chinese leader 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.”

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 following summits between leaders.

Instead, the primary objective for the talks appeared to be restoring channels of communication, principally through the military, to avoid the type of miscommunication or miscalculation US officials fear could lead to open conflict.

Biden said ahead of his departure for California that he would define success for the sit-down as getting back on a “normal course” with China. He said that included “corresponding, being able to pick up the phone and talk to one another if there’s a crisis, being able to make sure that our militaries still have contact with one another.”

A summit long in the making

For the better part of the last year, US officials have been laying the groundwork for this week’s Biden-Xi summit. With the aim of reestablishing diplomatic channels between the two countries, national security adviser Jake Sullivan has met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi three times, while Secretary of State Antony 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.

“Now is precisely the time for high-level diplomacy,” a senior administration official said. “Intense competition requires and demands intense diplomacy to manage tensions and to prevent competition from verging into conflict or confrontation.”

Trying to keep tension from tipping into conflict

The atmospherics surrounding the summit matched the high-stakes moment. The precise location of the meeting in the Bay Area – a historic estate south of San Francisco – was only divulged a few hours ahead of time for security reasons. And US officials said they’d spent hours in discussions with their Chinese counterparts about the choreography of how the meeting would unfold.

Despite a deep and apparently warm personal relationship cultivated during their time as vice presidents, Biden and Xi have overseen a deterioration in US-China relations to the lowest level in decades.

China severed military communication with the US following the visit then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made to Taiwan last summer. Biden administration officials have been working ever since to restore the channel, but those efforts were hampered by the tense episode involving a Chinese spy balloon that Biden ordered shot down earlier this year. One source familiar said Biden was likely to raise the issue with Xi in passing.

The last time Biden spoke face-to-face with Xi was a year ago in Bali, where the objective was described by American officials as establishing a “floor” for the relationship. The meeting was cordial but also did not produce a list of significant outcomes.

This year, officials have been even more careful to set expectations, suggesting the US-China relationship is simply in a different place than it was when summit talks between leaders produced lengthy sets of “deliverables.”

Long list of topics to address

The list of topics aides expected the two men to discuss was long. It included major areas of disagreement and strain, like military tensions around Taiwan, China’s disinformation campaigns and human rights violations, as well as potential spots of cooperation, including efforts to combat narcotics trafficking.

Also on the agenda were China’s nuclear buildup, economic issues and work toward curbing climate change.

On Taiwan, the two men were hardly likely to forge major agreement. China’s Communist Party claims the self-governing island as its own and has vowed to take it by force if necessary.

Biden has committed at various points to use US military force to protect Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack even as his own aides frequently walk those statements back later. And American officials have watched carefully as China scales up its military exercises in the water and air around the island.

Taiwan will hold an election in January, ramping up sensitivities around its status. Biden is expected to present Xi with “clarity” on the US position, senior administration officials said, meaning he’s likely to reiterate existing policy under which the US acknowledges China’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan.

On the eve of the summit, Biden told donors that China has serious issues, in an apparent reference to the country’s economy, where youth unemployment has soared and a real estate crisis has spooked investors.

“President Xi is another example of how reestablishing American leadership in the world is taking hold,” Biden said in San Francisco Tuesday, according to a pool report. “They’ve got real problems, folks.”

The president has previously used off-camera fundraisers to question China’s economic strength, once likening it to a “ticking time bomb,” which drew Beijing’s ire.

Aside from his summit with Biden this week, Xi will headline a dinner with top American executives, eager to court US businesses amid sliding foreign investment in China – and to signal to the US government the importance the private sector still places on China.

A political tight rope

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.”

To that end, US officials were finalizing an agreement with China to crack down on the export of the source chemicals used to make fentanyl ahead of the Biden-Xi talks.

The deal, which has been a priority for the Biden administration, would target companies that produce and export the source material to make the deadly synthetic opioid. The goal would be to significantly limit the flow of precursor materials to Mexico, the people said.

It could also mark an important domestic political win for Biden, whose administration has grappled with trafficking of lethal illicit drugs like fentanyl in an ongoing crisis at the southern border that has weighed down his administration.

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President Biden and China President Xi Jinping wrap up their high-stakes summit