Biden-Xi summit: Modest outcomes, from fentanyl to pandas: ANALYSIS

But both men agreed on the need to keep lines of communication open.

November 16, 2023, 5:10 PM

After months of meticulous planning, hours of meetings, and pomp and circumstance surrounding their high-stakes summit, President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping announced they'd keep talking.

The outcomes were modest, but they met the low bar U.S. officials set headed into the leaders' first face-to-face encounter, amid rising tensions, in more than a year.

On a very basic level, Biden said the two men agreed that "either one of us could pick up the phone, call directly, and we'd be heard immediately."

PHOTO: President Joe Biden greets China's President President Xi Jinping at the Filoli Estate in Woodside, Calif., on Nov, 15, 2023, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperative conference.
President Joe Biden greets China's President President Xi Jinping at the Filoli Estate in Woodside, Calif., on Nov, 15, 2023, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperative conference.
Doug Mills/The New York Times, Pool via AP

Both leaders made clear they want to prevent the competitive relationship from spilling over into conflict. The agreed to restore military-to-military communication to avoid misunderstandings, and a U.S. official said China will take steps to crack down on companies in China that produce precursor chemicals for fentanyl, in an agreement that Biden said would "save lives."

PHOTO: President Joe Biden shows Chinese President Xi Jinping his phone, at the entrance of a banquet hall of Filoli Estate, in California, on Nov. 15, 2023.
President Joe Biden shows Chinese President Xi Jinping his phone, on which is a photo Xi took in 1985 in San Francisco when he was a county leader of Zhengding and made his maiden trip to the United States, at the entrance of a banquet hall of Filoli Estate, in California, on Nov. 15, 2023.
Xinhua via Shutterstock

But, even so, the leaders issued no joint statement. As expected, no progress was made on the most sensitive areas of the U.S.-China relationship, including Taiwan -- where there's the greatest risk of conflict.

The two sides reiterated old talking points, with Biden reaffirming the U.S. one-China policy. Xi warned Biden to stop arming Taiwan, according to a readout from China's foreign ministry.

Nor were any agreements or reassurances announced with regard to the conflict in the Middle East, after Biden urged Xi in the meeting to use his influence over Iran to urge the country not to escalate the conflict involving Israel and to stop Iranian-backed militants from attacking U.S. forces in the region.

PHOTO: President Joe Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders' week in Woodside, California on November 15, 2023.
President Joe Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders' week in Woodside, California on November 15, 2023.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Yet, at the same time, Xi Jinping struck a notably softer tone, telling Biden that "planet earth is big enough" for both countries and they can rise above their differences. The Chinese leader was signaling to the audience in China and around the world that he's ready to lower the temperature with America.

PHOTO: President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference at the Filoli estate in Woodside, Calif., on Nov. 15, 2023.
President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference at the Filoli estate in Woodside, Calif., on Nov. 15, 2023.
Santiago Mejia/San Francisco Chronicle via Polaris

Dampening the positive energy out of the meeting was Biden's remarks at his news conference right after the summit. As he was walking away from the podium, he decided to take several more questions, including from a reporter asking whether he still thinks Xi is a dictator.

Biden responded with, "Well, look, he's a dictator in the sense that he is a guy who runs a country that is a communist country that's based on a form of government totally different than ours."

As Biden spoke, Secretary of State Antony Blinken appeared to flinch and shake his head.

Beijing condemned Biden's comments, saying "this kind of speech is extremely wrong and irresponsible political manipulation." China had also responded with fury when Biden made similar comments earlier this year.

The moment is a reminder of how delicate and tedious the relationship remains.

No amount of talking will resolve the deep-seated differences between these leaders. Xi Jinping has amassed an iron grip on power at home, while increasing the Communist Party's influence over China's economy and society. Meanwhile, Biden has posed his presidency as playing a pivotal role in the global battle between autocracies and democracies.

PHOTO: President Joe Biden greets China's President President Xi Jinping at the Filoli Estate in Woodside, Calif., on Nov, 15, 2023, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperative conference.
President Joe Biden greets China's President President Xi Jinping at the Filoli Estate in Woodside, Calif., on Nov, 15, 2023, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperative conference.
Doug Mills/The New York Times, Pool via AP

I was in the room right before the two leaders started their hours of closed-door meetings in Woodside, California. I asked Xi in Mandarin, "President Xi, do you trust Biden?" I repeated the question a few times. He took out his translation earpiece to hear what I said. He looked at me, appeared to smile, but did not respond.

Later, when President Biden was asked if he trusts Xi, he said "trust, but verify."

The two countries remain skeptical of each other. Beijing's view is that America is trying to contain its rise, with actions like export controls on advanced computer chips, but that it's impossible to ignore each other and unrealistic to change each other.

Xi Jinping went on a charm offensive during a dinner with business executives after the summit that included the CEOs of Apple, Boeing and FedEx. Elon Musk attended an earlier reception.

Xi told the executives that if one country sees the other as a threat, it will only lead to "misguided actions and unwanted results."

PHOTO: President Joe Biden escorts Chinese President Xi Jinping to his car to bid farewell after their talks in the Filoli Estate in California, on Nov. 15, 2023.
President Joe Biden escorts Chinese President Xi Jinping to his car to bid farewell after their talks in the Filoli Estate in California, on Nov. 15, 2023.
Xinhua via Shutterstock

He clearly wants to show the world that China is open for business. The country is in a deep economic downturn, with rising unemployment and a sharp slowdown in foreign investment.

"China is ready to be a friend and partner of the U.S.," Xi said, according to the AP, adding that the countries need to "build more bridges."

Ending on a bridge-building note, Xi suggested that the U.S. might be getting more pandas to replace those recently sent to China. He said he had learned how reluctant American people were to say goodbye to the world-beloved bears.

He said while they're safely back in China, the San Diego Zoo and people in California "very much look forward to welcoming pandas back."

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