WOODSIDE, Calif. — President Joe Biden on Wednesday kicked off his first meeting in a year with China’s Xi Jinping by stressing the need for the two superpowers to avoid conflict, an urgent call to ease tensions coming against a backdrop of global tumult.
Biden underscored the high stakes of the gathering held on the sidelines of a Pacific states summit, declaring “the world” was watching its outcome. The relationship between Washington and Beijing will be a defining one for decades, but it has frayed badly amid a growing threat of military conflict between the world’s two largest economies that has pushed relations to their lowest point in a half-century.
“We have to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict. And we have to manage that responsibly, the competition,” Biden said as the two men began their discussion at a lush resort in a San Francisco suburb. He acknowledged that he and his counterpart did not always agree but, turning to Xi, called it “paramount that you and I understand each other clearly, leader to leader, with no misconception or miscommunication.”
The need for candid conversations was echoed by Xi, who sat opposite Biden at a long conference table, both men flanked by senior aides. The Chinese leader nodded more directly toward the tensions between the two nations noting, through a translator, it had not been “smooth sailing” between Washington and Beijing. But, he said that dialogue was needed since “turning our backs on each other is not realistic.”
Xi also downplayed the need for competition, noting the inherent differences between the U.S. and China and that it was “not realistic for one side to try to shape the other” — perhaps a subtle push for Washington against interfering with Beijing’s objectives, including its policy toward Taiwan.
“Planet Earth is big enough for both countries to succeed,” said Xi, before the two sides began a closed-door meeting expected to last for hours.
U.S. officials previewed a series of modest goals for the summit, including agreements to negotiate further on climate change and fentanyl, as well as for the two nations’ superpowers to resume communicating after months of silence.
But the White House deliberately set expectations low for the meeting, both in terms of deliverables and for an evening news conference Biden scheduled to hold afterward. Officials stressed that the biggest accomplishment could be that the two men are talking at all. The administration’s goal, simply, was to turn back the clock and restore the bilateral relationship to where it was when the two men last met in Bali, Indonesia, before tensions escalated.
That meeting one year ago had been advertised as a breakthrough but the relationship soured months later. The presence of an alleged Chinese spy balloon over the continental U.S. in February, Beijing’s increasing saber rattling toward Taiwan and new U.S. high-tech export restrictions targeting China further escalated tensions and the men have not spoken since.
Biden and Xi have a long history, and one that’s repeatedly cropped up for Biden as he sold himself to Americans in 2020 as a career statesman wise to other world leaders and their motivations. In one common refrain, he retold a story of meeting with Xi in southwest China when he was vice president. Xi asked him earnestly to define America, and Biden said, “possibilities.” Biden spoke of traveling extensively with Xi — and Xi invoked that trip in his remarks Wednesday — though the American leader would later use increasingly hot rhetoric to describe his Chinese counterpart.
The last year has further tested their resolve.
Biden will need to convince Xi that the U.S. and China still have wiggle room to cooperate. That’s a hard sell considering Biden calls Beijing a threat to the “rules-based international order,” accuses it of committing genocide in Xinjiang against predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and has waged a three-year campaign to rally partners into coalitions that counter China’s growing diplomatic, economic and military muscle. Meanwhile, Xi delivered a bellicose warning to Community Party officials earlier this year that the U.S. is pursuing “comprehensive containment, encirclement and suppression against us.”
But the president still planned to press Xi on China’s ties with Iran, including how the Chinese leader could use his influence with Tehran to prevent Iran and its proxies from turning the Israel-Hamas war into a wider regional conflict. But the administration’s hopes were limited, considering Beijing — while not overtly helping Russia in its war effort against Ukraine — has also not frozen out Moscow.
Moreover, the White House plans to announce a new commitment by Beijing to stem the flow of chemicals to Mexico that cartels process into fentanyl. Discussions would be held on climate change and artificial intelligence. And there were expectations of resuming high-level military-to-military ties, an administration official told reporters last week. Beijing suspended those links as a reprisal for then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit in 2022 to Taiwan.
Biden advisers hope to ease tensions with China in part to allow the president to focus on the crises in the Middle East and Ukraine as well as his own reelection campaign. But while there are few unifying issues in a divided Washington, being hawkish on Beijing has created some bipartisanship. And lawmakers in both parties agree that the state of U.S.-China ties demands more from the meeting than just vague rhetoric.
National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby ahead of the meeting declined to get into specifics, but he noted that Biden has been candid about the challenges China is facing to its economy and added that Biden will make it clear there is no change in U.S. policy with respect to Taiwan.
The meeting — on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in San Francisco — comes as Washington was riven by partisan division but appeared on the verge of avoiding a potential government shutdown. China, meanwhile, is struggling to emerge from a severe economic downturn following countrywide shutdowns during the pandemic and shrinking foreign investment.