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Did Biden and China's Xi hit a reset? Not quite, but they did agree on a few things

U.S. President Joe Biden greets China's President President Xi Jinping at the Filoli Estate in Woodside, Calif., Wednesday, Nov, 15, 2023, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperative conference.
Doug Mills
/
AP
U.S. President Joe Biden greets China's President President Xi Jinping at the Filoli Estate in Woodside, Calif., Wednesday, Nov, 15, 2023, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperative conference.

SAN FRANCISCO — President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping shook hands, took a stroll through a garden and generally made nice on Wednesday when they met face-to-face for the first time in a year.

After more than four hours of talks at a historic estate in the hills south of San Francisco, the two leaders emerged with agreements to cooperate and keep talking. Biden even said he and Xi agreed that they should be able to pick up the phone and talk with one another whenever they want.

Xi also praised the achievements of this meeting on Wednesday evening. In an address to U.S. business leaders in downtown San Francisco, the Chinese leader said there is "plenty of room for our corporations, and we are fully able to help each other succeed and achieve win-win outcomes."

But beyond the positive spin, can this meeting help alter the trajectory of the bilateral relationship? Here are a few take-aways from Wednesday's meeting.

It's a step in the right direction, but Biden keeps rhetoric tough in front of the American public

On Wednesday evening, Biden told a news conference that he had not shied away from taking a tough tone with his Chinese counterpart. He again used the word "dictator" to describe his Chinese counterpart.

"I know the man. I know his modus operandi," the U.S. president said. Biden later said: "He's a dictator in the sense that he — he is a guy who runs a country that — it's a communist country that is based on a form of government totally different than ours."

Still, the hours of talks yielded a handful of agreements that analysts say could inject a modicum of stability into a rocky relationship.

Top among them is an agreement to resume high-level military-to-military dialogue. These communications were suspended last year following former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan.

"That's been worrisome," Biden said. "That's how accidents happen." Administration officials say this has been a top issue in talks with China in recent months, and Biden expressed relief that there was finally agreement to get the talks back up and running.

Analysts say it's a step in the right direction.

"You can be cynical and say that talking and engaging and having discussions are not going to solve problems, and you wouldn't be far wrong. But not talking to each other is no longer a low-risk proposition," said Dave Finkelstein, director for China and Indo-Pacific Security Affairs at the Center for Naval Analyses, an independent research institute in Arlington, Virginia.

"They may not like what they say to each other, they may not like what they hear, and they may not resolve all the key issues that divide them. But if they're not engaging, if they're not talking, if they're not involved in some sort of mechanism to air grievances or ask for clarifications, then the possibilities of miscalculation and mishaps, in my view, goes up. And neither side wants that."

The other substantial agreement between Biden and Xi relates to fentanyl, the synthetic opioid that kills tens of thousands of Americans each year.

In 2019, China banned the export of fentanyl, but illicit drug manufacturers adapted. Now, most of the precursor ingredients for the drug come from China. The new agreement will underpin a crackdown on companies selling precursors and pill presses.

A senior Biden administration official said the administration had worked with the Chinese government to target specific companies. "In many respects the proof is in the pudding here. But these are important steps."

What's unclear is what China received from the fentanyl agreement. Beijing has been pushing to have the U.S. drop sanctions against a forensics laboratory that the Trump administration says was involved in human rights abuses linked to China's far western region of Xinjiang.

Biden said he and Xi also agreed to launch a dialogue around managing artificial intelligence. Beijing also decided to invite 50,000 young Americans to China on exchange and study programs in the next five years.

Biden and Xi share a desire to avoid conflict, but Taiwan remains the "most potentially dangerous" issue

The issue of Taiwan featured prominently at Wednesday's Biden-Xi meeting. According to a senior U.S. official, Xi underscored to Biden that Taiwan was "the biggest," and "most potentially dangerous" issue in the relationship.

Jessica Chen Weiss, a Chinese foreign policy expert at Cornell University, says Taiwan is a "huge factor" in the bilateral relations. "But I think both sides are quite aware and not interested in adding any element of instability," she said. "There may be reactions, but I think that for now, leaders and political candidates are pretty sober about the potential dangers."

Weiss noted that ahead of Taiwan's presidential election in January, even the island's political candidates seem to be aware of the potential danger if things get out of control.

A senior administration official familiar with Wednesday's conversation said Xi told Biden that China's preference is for a peaceful "reunification" with the self-governed, democratic island.

According to the official's tally, Xi also noted how he had heard reports that China was planning for military action against Taiwan in 2027, or 2035. "And then he basically said, there are no such plans," the administration official said. NPR has contacted the Chinese government for comment.

Not just the Chinese and Americans are watching, and the 2 leaders didn't just talk about U.S. and China

This meeting has dominated news headlines in both the U.S. and China. But other countries in the region, and beyond, were watching closely.

Speaking at an event in San Francisco ahead of the Biden-Xi meeting on Wednesday, Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong said "the entire country" was tuning in.

"The only concern is that [if] these two major powers cannot reach agreement, cannot work together, [it] will negatively affect the region," he said through an interpreter.

Biden and Xi acknowledged that the world was watching – and that they have a responsibility to manage their relationship properly.

One recent testing case may be the role both the U.S. and China play in the Middle East crisis. According to U.S. officials, Biden asked Beijing to urge Iran to take proactive steps as the Israel-Hamas war drags on. In response, Beijing said they had spoken to Tehran about potential risks in the region.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues to feature in high-level bilateral talks. At Wednesday's meeting, Biden urged Xi to continue to withhold military support to Moscow.

Talking is good, but is it going to change the trajectory of U.S.-China relations?

Much has changed since the two leaders met this time last year in Indonesia. In the U.S., as the election season kicks off, China has become an even more contentious foreign policy issue. According to a recent Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey, nearly 60% of Americans consider China's development as a world power to be a critical threat.

In China, the economic growth since then has been less impressive to many analysts. So, according to Yu Jie, a senior research fellow on China at the Chatham House think tank in London, Xi has hoped to use this visit as an opportunity to send a welcome message to U.S. business leaders.

"However, U.S.-China relations have shifted away from the phase which counted on bilateral trade and investments as 'the stabilizer'. This structural challenge remains unchanged and unresolved," she said.

But if Xi's visit was unable to change the trajectory of the U.S-China bilateral relationship, he at least seemed to allay fears on one aspect of ties: pandas.

Speaking at a dinner event in San Francisco on Wednesday evening, Xi said he had taken note of the fact that some Americans were reluctant to see Chinese pandas leave U.S. soil when three of the black and white animals were sent back to China earlier this month.

China is the only country with wild pandas, and it lends or leases them to zoos around the world as a gesture of goodwill.

"We are ready to continue our cooperation with the United States on panda conservation and do our best to meet the wishes of the Californians so as to deepen friendly ties between our peoples," he said to loud applause.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.
Vincent Ni
Vincent Ni is the Asia Editor at NPR, where he leads a team of Asia-based correspondents whose reporting spans from Afghanistan to Japan, and across all NPR platforms.