WOODSIDE — U.S. President Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping emerged from their first face-to-face meeting in a year on Wednesday with vows to stabilize their fraught relationship and showcasing modest agreements to combat illegal fentanyl and re-establish military communications.
The two leaders spent four hours together – in meetings, a working lunch and a garden stroll – intent on showing the world that while they are global economic competitors they’re not locked in a winner-take-all faceoff.
“Planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed,” Xi told Biden.
The U.S. president told Xi: “I think it’s paramount that you and I understand each other clearly, leader-to-leader, with no misconceptions or miscommunications. We have to ensure competition does not veer into conflict.”
At a bucolic Northern California estate, the two set to work on detangling a multitude of tensions. Their meeting, on the sidelines of the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference, has far-reaching implications for a world grappling with economic cross currents, conflicts in the Middle East and Europe, tensions in Taiwan and more.
They reached expected agreements to curb illicit fentanyl production and to reopen military ties, a senior U.S. official said after the meeting ended. Many of the chemicals used to make synthetic fentanyl come from China to cartels that traffic the powerful narcotic into the U.S., which is facing an overdose crisis.
Top military leaders will resume talks, increasingly important particularly as unsafe or unprofessional incidents between the two nations’ ships and aircraft have spiked, said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the agreements ahead of Biden’s remarks.
Both leaders acknowledged the importance of their relationship and the need for better coordination. But their differences shone through: Xi indicated he wants better cooperation — but on China’s terms. And he sought to project strength to his domestic audience in the face of U.S. policies restricting imports from China and limiting technology transfers to Beijing.
Biden, meanwhile, will also spend time this week in California working to highlight new alliances in the Indo Pacific and efforts to boost trade with other regional leaders.
Xi, speaking through an interpreter, declared it “an objective fact that China and the United States are different in history, culture, social system and development.”
The presidents and their respective aides on trade, the economy, national security and regional diplomacy gathered across from one another at a single long table, the culmination of negotiations between the two leaders’ top aides over the past several months. It was Biden and Xi’s first conversation of any kind since they met last November in Bali.
They’re seeking to build back to a stable baseline after already tense relations took a nosedive following the U.S. downing of a Chinese spy balloon that had traversed the continental U.S., and amid differences over the self-ruled island of Taiwan, China’s hacking of a Biden official’s emails and other matters.
For Biden, Wednesday’s meeting was a chance for the president to do what he believes he does best: in-person diplomacy.
“As always, there’s no substitute for face-to-face discussions,” he told Xi. With his characteristic optimism, Biden sketched a vision of leaders who manage competition “responsibly,” adding, “that’s what the United States wants and what we intend to do.”
Xi, for his part, was gloomy about the state of the post-pandemic global economy. China’s economy remains in the doldrums, with prices falling due to slack demand from consumers and businesses.
“The global economy is recovering, but its momentum remains sluggish,” Xi said. “Industrial and supply chains are still under the threat of interruption and protectionism is rising. All these are grave problems.”
The relationship between China and the U.S. has never been smooth, he said. Still, it has kept moving forward. “For two large countries like China and the United States, turning their back on each other is not an option,” he said.
More pointedly, Xi also suggested it was not up to the U.S. to dictate how the Chinese manage their affairs, saying, “It is unrealistic for one side to remodel the other, and conflict and confrontation has unbearable consequences for both sides.”