Breaking a yearlong silence between them, President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met Wednesday in Silicon Valley and vowed to reduce tensions in the world's most important bilateral relationship.
Among other things, they agreed to resume military communications and impede the flow of deadly fentanyl from China.
"For two large countries like China and the United States, turning their back on each other is not an option," Xi told Biden at the beginning of their talks on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. "It is unrealistic for one side to remodel the other, and conflict and confrontation has unbearable consequences for both sides."
Biden told Xi it was "paramount" the two leaders, who have known each other for decades, understand each other clearly and "ensure that competition does not veer into conflict."
Speaking later at a news conference, Biden said the meeting was "productive and constructive."
But asked if he trusted Xi, Biden emphasized it was important to "trust but verify." And when asked if he still considered Xi a "dictator," as Biden has said in the past, Biden said he did.
"Look, he is," Biden said. "He's a dictator in the sense that he's a guy who runs a country that is a communist country that's based on a form of government totally different than ours."
There was no immediate reaction from Beijing.
Earlier in the news conference, Biden said it was vital to be direct with China. "We're talking to our competitors and the key ... [is] being blunt with one another so there is no misunderstanding," he said.
Roughly half of the questions Biden faced in the news conference dealt with war in Gaza and Israel's attacks on Gaza's largest hospital, which Israel says Hamas is using as a staging ground.
Wednesday's highly anticipated meeting was the first time Biden and Xi have spoken since November 2022 at the Group of 20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, where they promised to "manage" their relationship amid disagreements over economic competition, China's territorial disputes with its neighbors, technology and human rights issues.
But in the year since, relations have deteriorated further over the self-governing island of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own, and after the downing of a Chinese spy balloon that drifted over the continental U.S.
The two superpowers agreed to restore military-to-military communications, which Beijing suspended in retaliation for then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan in August 2022. Restoring the military channel will include a meeting between Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and his Chinese counterpart, once that person is named, and operational engagement between senior military commanders as well as ship captains, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters after the four-hour bilateral meeting.
Xi also pledged to crack down on exports of the chemicals used to make the deadly opioid fentanyl, although China has failed to stem the flow of the synthetic drug to the U.S. despite making similar commitments under previous administrations. Biden and Xi also discussed the use of artificial intelligence in drone and nuclear warhead technologies, but the official said the leaders were not yet ready for any formal declaration.
Biden sought China's help with the two global conflicts that have eclipsed his foreign policy agenda: Russia's continued assault on Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas war. The president pressed Xi to use China's influence with Iran to urge Tehran and its proxies to prevent the war from expanding into a regional conflict and made clear the U.S. concerns about Ukraine, the official said.
The talks, which took place at Filoli estate, a historic country house in the Silicon Valley community of Woodside, come ahead of a potentially rocky geopolitical year during which Taiwan and the U.S. will hold presidential elections.
"The geopolitical calendar over the next 12 to 18 months is arguably the driving reason behind why the U.S. in particular is putting a lot of stock in this meeting," said Jude Blanchette, the Freeman Chair in China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Not for specific issue outcomes, but more so they can reach an agreement at a direct leader-to-leader level, with Biden and Xi looking each other in the eye and saying: We're both going to struggle to manage a rapidly changing geopolitical environment if we can't find a modicum of stability within what's clearly a rivalry."
Though the meeting was focused on thawing diplomatic relations, the pair discussed the long-standing disagreements, including Taiwan's sovereignty, China's nuclear arsenal buildup and provocations in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, and U.S. export controls on semiconductors and other advanced technologies. Biden was also expected to raise China's human rights record, including its treatment of Muslim Uyghurs and crackdown on Hong Kong.
Xi underscored that Taiwan was the "biggest, most potentially dangerous issue in U.S.-China relations," while Biden urged his Chinese counterpart to respect Taiwan's electoral process, including the balloting scheduled for January, according to the official. Xi brushed off any notion that China was planning military action to seize control of Taiwan in the next decade, the official added.
"President Biden did not pull punches. He was respectful but very clear," the U.S. official said, noting there was a lot "more back and forth, give and take" compared with their last meeting in Bali, which took place as the world was emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although the White House sought to lower expectations surrounding the Xi-Biden meeting, the fact that it took place at all was a significant step toward defusing tensions, analysts said.
Speaking ahead of the meeting, Andrew Scobell, a China expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a think tank in Washington, said he did not expect “much. … But not much is better than nothing at all.”
“I think that the most important thing probably that could come out of [the meeting] is an improvement in the tone of the relationship,” Scobell said.
China's top-down system means that if Xi signals warmer relations with the U.S., the relationship will probably see an instant improvement.
"That’s the only way that you’re going to see that happen. It really has to come from the top," he added.
With economic and political turmoil at home, Xi came into the APEC summit interested in showing he could hold his own with the American president, analysts said.
China’s economy is not growing at the rates it was before COVID shutdowns derailed it. And in recent months, Xi has sacked several top officials, including the ministers of foreign affairs and defense, an unusual upheaval in the Communist Party-controlled government.
"For Xi, it matters to be able to show to his domestic constituents, people in the Politburo, that he’s got the United States — that relations aren’t spinning out of control,” said Ian Johnson, a China expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I think now’s the chance just to get things back on track."
On Tuesday, Biden told a group of donors in San Francisco that China has "real problems," an apparent reference to the country's troubled economy.
"President Xi is another example of how we’re reestablishing American leadership in the world. It’s taking hold," he said. "They've got real problems."
The reestablishment of military-to-military communications is a relatively easy “carrot” that China could offer to show it is attempting to improve bilateral relations, according to Scobell. It is a way for China to appear to be making a concession without really giving up anything substantial, he said.
Elsewhere, the two leaders sought cooperation on relatively uncontroversial issues including climate change and restoring travel between the two countries, two areas that will probably benefit California. Ahead of the meeting, the U.S. and China agreed to resume a working group on climate cooperation, which Beijing cut off in retaliation for Pelosi's Taiwan visit.
"California is going to play an outsized role in shaping the climate debate given that it is really at the lead in the United States both in regulation but also adaptation to climate change and the role of technology," Blanchette said.
The Biden administration has spent the last year trying to improve diplomatic relations between the two countries. National security advisor Jake Sullivan met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi three times while Biden deployed Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry to Beijing.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, too, traveled to Beijing and met with Xi ahead of Wednesday's talks. During his visit, Newsom — a former mayor of San Francisco — said Xi began their meeting by recalling his visit to the city in 1985, specifically remembering the Golden Gate Bridge.
The bridge was a recurring symbol throughout the trip, with references in Newsom's speeches and even appearing on a sign illustrated to show the bridge blending into the Great Wall, China's own historic landmark.
Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, said Xi’s move to invoke the bridge in his meeting with Newsom was a classic attempt to flatter a visiting foreigner.
“But it means something,” he said. “It means that in this case, Xi Jinping does want to consolidate relationships.”
Schell said Xi may be motivated to improve relations with the U.S. because of China’s weak economy.
“I think even Xi Jinping is recognizing that his willful diplomacy, his attack on entrepreneurs, his attacks on the United States, his constant iteration that the United States is a hostile foreign force — that it's gotten a little far, it's beginning to hurt China,” Schell said. “So we have a course correction.”
Whether the rapprochement is substantive or symbolic, however, is not yet clear. Reaching agreement on climate action, economic policy or control of the South China Sea is much more difficult than evoking the cooperative imagery of the bridge.
“That's the kind of symbol and sign that China is likely to give, because it costs nothing,” Schell said. “It's gracious. It makes a genuflection in the direction of Biden and America without actually giving anything away."
Subramanian and Wilkinson reported from Washington, Rosenhall from Beijing and Sacramento and Rector from Woodside.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.