WOODSIDE, Calif. — President Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping held a tightly-scripted diplomatic encounter Wednesday on the sidelines of a Pacific states summit aimed at calming fears over the U.S. and China drifting toward military conflict in the Indo-Pacific.
Then, in the waning moments of his remarks to the press following the meeting, Biden stood by his prior assessment that Xi is a dictator.
“Look, he is. He’s a dictator in the sense that he’s a guy who runs a country that is a communist country,” Biden said during a news conference following his four-hour session with Xi.
The remarks could spark possible backlash from China. The last time Biden called Xi a dictator, at a June fundraiser in Northern California, Chinese officials called the remarks absurd and a provocation.
Biden just minutes earlier Wednesday had announced agreements on a number of confidence-building measures — specifically a resumption of high-level military-to-military communications. “Open, clear, direct communications,” he said, that will help avoid “vital miscalculations on either side” that can lead to accidents.
Biden also said he and Xi agreed to steps that could help curb the flow of Chinese chemicals used in the U.S. production of fentanyl, and that the two countries would further discuss the impacts of artificial intelligence, including the risks and safety issues associated with the emerging technology.
“Our meetings have always been candid and straightforward. We haven’t always agreed, but they’ve always been straightforward,” Biden said. “And today built on several months of groundwork we’ve laid over the past several months of high-level diplomacy between our teams.”
But Biden’s candid assessment of China’s leader proved to be a closer reflection of the increasingly frosty relationship between the two powers. It also harkened back to a broader theme of Biden’s presidency: That the global stage is a fight for survival between democracy and autocracy, with stakes that couldn’t be higher.
And the quick quip, once again, revealed a U.S. president willing to play the game with scripted remarks, but only for so long — such as when he said last year, while in Poland, that Russia’s Vladimir Putin cannot remain in power, or the four-plus times he said throughout his presidency that America would defend Taiwan if China moved in, only to have his comments walked back by his staff.
The meeting between the two was their first in a year. Biden’s primary audience were American partners in lockstep with his administration’s efforts to counter China’s growing diplomatic and military muscle. Xi targeted the international business community — including those who paid at least $2,000 per plate to hear him speak at a post-meeting corporate dinner Wednesday night — that China needs to lure back to resuscitate the nation’s sputtering economy.
That the two leaders were talking at all was among the other big takeaways from the summit.
“In the months ahead, we’re going to continue to preserve and pursue high-level diplomacy with the PRC — in both directions — to keep the lines of communication open, including between President Xi and me,” Biden said. “He and I agreed that either one of us can pick up the phone and call directly.”
Xi, meanwhile, declared his commitment to “stable, healthy and sustainable” ties with the U.S., Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported.
Earlier in the day, Biden underscored the high stakes of the gathering, held on an olive tree-lined estate in a San Francisco suburb, 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.
The need for candid conversations was echoed by Xi, who sat opposite Biden among 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.” “Planet Earth is big enough for both countries to succeed,” said Xi, before the two sides began the closed-door meeting.
The White House deliberately set low expectations for the meeting, both in terms of deliverables and Biden’s evening news conference. 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 the Chinese leader invoked that trip in his remarks Wednesday, though Biden would later use increasingly hot rhetoric to describe his Chinese counterpart.
The last year has further tested their resolve.
Below the surface pleasantries, readouts for the two leaders exposed the deep divisions on key bilateral issues. Xi demanded that the U.S. “stop arming Taiwan,” Xinhua reported. He also declared that the self-governing island’s “reunification” with China — something the majority of Taiwanese oppose — is “unstoppable.”
Biden said America’s policy on Taiwan has not changed.
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.
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 re-election 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.
The bilateral meeting offered a welcome distraction for administration officials at the APEC summit in nearby San Francisco, who in recent days frustrated more than a dozen Asia-Pacific nations — many of them also being courted by China — when the U.S. pulled back on trade talks that Biden himself initiated.
While foreign delegations groused behind the scenes, leaders from U.S. allies in Asia welcomed the Biden-Xi meeting as a rare chance to encourage stability in a U.S.-China relationship that lately has threatened to spiral out of control in their backyard.
“It should give a clear message that we are able to work together and trust each other to resolve serious problems — like climate issues, trade or [the conflict in] Gaza,” Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim said at the summit Wednesday. “Countries like Malaysia and [Southeast Asian] nations cannot be forced to see the world and their big powers in the Cold War mindset.”
Veterans of the U.S. security state also welcomed the meeting in San Francisco, particularly the expected discussions to reestablish communications between the nations’ militaries. While improvements on trade or human rights issues are fleeting, the nations at least can try to ensure that any potential accident – especially in the Taiwan Strait or South China Sea – doesn’t trigger a full scale war.
During the first Cold War, “we had exquisite deconfliction measures with the Russians — exquisite,” Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, said at the APEC summit. “We have nothing like that with China.”
“We don’t want a hot conflict,” she said, “but one can happen from an accident.”
Myah Ward contributed to this report.
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