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Pandas, fentanyl and Taiwan — takeaways from Biden's meeting with Xi

President Biden said the meeting included "some of the most constructive and productive discussions we've had."
Pandas, fentanyl and Taiwan — takeaways from Biden's meeting with Xi
Posted at 7:37 AM, Nov 16, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-16 07:37:17-05

It was a meeting a year in the making.

President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping sat down together on Wednesday just outside of San Francisco, where Asian leaders gathered for an annual summit. It was almost exactly one year since their last encounter in Bali, Indonesia, on the sidelines of another global gathering.

In addition to a formal bilateral meeting, President Biden and Xi shared a lunch with top advisers and strolled the verdant grounds of the luxury estate where their meeting took place.

President Biden said afterwards that the meeting included “some of the most constructive and productive discussions we’ve had." He added that they will “keep the lines of communication open” and Xi is “willing to pick up the phone” — no small thing in the world of high-risk, high-stakes diplomacy between Washington and Beijing.

In another potential sign of warmer feelings, Xi signaled later in the night that China would send new pandas to the United States after the three at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington were returned earlier this month. In a speech, Xi said he wanted to “deepen the friendly ties between our two peoples." Xi also said he learned that Americans — particularly children — were “really reluctant” to say goodbye to the rare and popular animals.

Here's a look at how the rest of the day panned out.

New agreements

President Biden left the meeting with commitments on key issues.

Xi agreed to help curb the production of the illicit fentanyl that is a deadly component of drugs sold in the United States. A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private meeting, said the shift will be a setback for Latin American drug dealers.

“It’s going to save lives, and I appreciated President Xi’s commitment on this issue," President Biden said at a press conference after his meeting.

In addition, President Biden and Xi reached an agreement to resume military-to-military communications. That means Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will speak with his Chinese counterpart once someone is named to the job, the official said. Similar engagements will take place up and down the military chain of command.

The official said President Biden was “very clear” to Xi that such communications between U.S. and China should be institutionalized and that they are “not done as a gift or as a favor to either side."

President Biden said the U.S. and China would talk more about artificial intelligence as well.

“We're going to get our experts together and discuss risk and safety issues," he said.

The agreements helped fulfill the White House's goal for the meeting — prove to voters that President Biden's dedication to personal diplomacy is paying off.

On Sunday, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN that President Biden wanted “practical ways” to show that meeting with Xi can help “defend American interests and also deliver progress on the priorities of the American people.”

Zoe Liu, a fellow for China studies at the Council for Foreign Relations, described the meeting between President Biden and Xi as a positive step, albeit an incremental one.

“These agreements will not change the structural challenges in the bilateral relations, but it paves the way for more detailed working-level discussions, which is more important,” she said.

Biden presses China to act like a superpower in cooling global tensions

Beijing has long sought to be treated as an equal by Washington, and President Biden sought to leverage those ambitions with Xi to address two devastating wars.

In their private session, President Biden appealed to Xi to use his influence to try to calm global tensions, particularly to try to pressure Iran not to widen the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

A U.S. official said President Biden did most of the talking on the matter, and that Xi mostly listened, and that it was too soon to tell what sort of message China was sending to Tehran and how it was being received.

President Biden has also pressed Xi to continue to withhold military support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A 'clear-headed' exchange and a warning on Taiwan

President Biden and Xi held a “clear-headed” and “not heated” discussion on Taiwan — the most sensitive topic in the relationship with the greatest potential to spiral into wider conflict. President Biden said he reaffirmed the United States' “One China” policy and its belief that any resolution must be peaceful.

“I’m not going to change that,” President Biden said. “That’s not going to change.”

He reiterated, though, that the U.S. would continue to arm Taiwan as a deterrent against any attempt by China to use force to reunify the self-governing island with the mainland. The U.S. had maintained strategic ambiguity about whether it would directly intervene to protect Taiwan in the event of an invasion by Beijing.

Xi, a U.S. official said, told President Biden he had no plans to invade the island, though President Biden chided him for China’s massive military build-up around Taiwan. President Biden also called on China to avoid meddling in Taiwan's elections next year.

Economic challenges

Xi arrived in San Francisco at a time of economic challenges back in China, where an aging population and growing debt have hampered its recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Beijing's description of the meeting, Xi pressed President Biden to lift sanctions and change policies on export controls for sensitive equipment.

“Stifling China’s technological progress is nothing but a move to contain China’s high-quality development and deprive the Chinese people of their right to development,” the readout said. “China’s development and growth, driven by its own inherent logic, will not be stopped by external forces.”

There's no indication that President Biden will agree to take such steps. But even the meeting itself could calm jittery nerves back in China, where there have been signs foreign investment is tapering off.

Zhang Lei, a Chinese businessman whose company, Cheche Group, is listed on NASDAQ, said high-level meetings such as the one between President Biden and Xi can help assure companies that have been hesitant to invest in China.

“Confrontations don’t work,” he said. "You don’t make money with confrontations.”

It's personal

President Biden and Xi go back years, and President Biden often repeats the story of their meetings when they were both vice presidents.

But on Wednesday, it was Xi’s turn to reference their previous encounters during brief public remarks, although he eschewed the embellishments that President Biden usually adds to the tale.

“It was 12 years ago,” Xi said. “I still remember our interactions very vividly, and it always gives me a lot of thoughts.”

President Biden also emphasized the length of their relationship and the value of their interactions.

“We haven’t always agreed, which was not a surprise to anyone, but our meetings have always been candid, straightforward and useful,” President Biden said. He added that “it’s paramount that you and I understand each other clearly, leader to leader, with no misconceptions or miscommunication.”

Bilateral meetings aren't always conducive to a personal touch, and President Biden and Xi were flanked by advisers on opposite sides of a long table. However, a senior administration official said they spoke about their wives, and President Biden wished Xi's wife a happy birthday.

The official, who requested anonymity to discuss a private conversation, said Xi was embarrassed, and he admitted that he had forgotten his wife's upcoming birthday because he's been working so hard.


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