U.S. President Joe Biden came out of Wednesday’s summit with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping — the first talks between the two leaders in a year — “very satisfied,” according to the White House. The four-hour discussion in a mansion on the outskirts of San Francisco met its objectives: Biden received Chinese approval to re-establish some — but not all — military communications and commitments to combat fentanyl trafficking and establish a working group on artificial intelligence in the field of defense. But, above all, the great goal was achieved: both leaders agreed to safeguard the bilateral relationship to avoid unwanted crises on the eve of a key election year for both countries. Biden and Xi will have to demonstrate that goodwill from now on: their divergent communiqués made it clear that there are still significant differences on issues such as Taiwan.
The most anticipated meeting of the year in the global geopolitical arena created a firewall in the “most important bilateral relationship in the world” — as described by Xi himself — and eased tensions between the two superpowers following a year in which relations had sunk to their lowest level. “He and I agreed that each one of us can pick up the phone call directly and we’ll be heard immediately,” Biden noted at his press conference at the end of the meeting. “Vital miscalculations on either side can cause real trouble.”
Getting it right was critical. China, with its sluggish economy, needs investment from U.S. business. The United States, preoccupied with wars in the Middle East and Ukraine, is seeking stability in the Pacific. Next year is a key year for both countries politically. Elections will be held in January in Taiwan, the democratic island that China considers part of its territory, and Beijing fears that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has a policy of distancing itself from the other side of the Taiwan Strait, will secure a third consecutive term.
In November 2024, the U.S. presidential elections will be held. The election campaign will be in full swing from January onwards; Biden, who is bidding to remain in the White House, will be focused on his campaign activities and will not travel abroad.
“It was the last chance” to smooth over the rough edges between the two superpowers, Georgetown University’s Denis Wilder said Thursday in a videoconference. “There is no chance next year that Biden will travel to Asia, or that he will accept an invitation to travel to Beijing, or that Xi will be invited to come to Washington. If a firewall was going to be put on the relationship, it had to be done now.”
For the moment, that has been accomplished. “By highlighting areas of cooperation and insisting on communication, Xi and Biden defined what the boundaries are in the U.S.-China competition,” Beijing-based consulting firm Trivium said.
Action against fentanyl
Those areas of cooperation have been made clear. The two countries signed an agreement to accelerate renewables and reduce fossil fuel consumption ahead of the COP28 meeting in Dubai in three weeks. They also agreed, according to the U.S., that China will crack down on companies that manufacture precursor substances used to produce fentanyl, the opioid that kills about 100,000 Americans each year. In return, the United States has lifted sanctions on a Chinese laboratory.
The talks also resulted in a pact, albeit one of vague terms, for the establishment of a working group on artificial intelligence in the nuclear and defense fields. An agreement that falls short of the outright ban the U.S. had mooted before the meeting and which some experts have greeted with skepticism. “I think they want to collaborate in a group because they want to get a sense of how advanced we are in artificial intelligence and militarization. I think it’s more of an intelligence-gathering operation on the Chinese side rather than a real attempt to establish the process of artificial intelligence in defense,” notes Wilder, a former senior White House National Security Council official.
Resuming military discussions, which had been frozen since last year’s visit to Taiwan by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is also part of the confidence-building measures between the two nations. These will not be fully restored, however. Until 2022 there were eight levels of dialogue, and as Biden explained in his press conference Wednesday, three are being reinstated. Among them, contact between the respective navies in the Pacific, and talks between the U.S. Secretary of Defense and the Chinese Minister of Defense; but Beijing has no one in that office since the dismissal of Li Shangfu in October. A key dialogue, between the Pentagon and the Central Military Commission, remains suspended.
But in such a complex relationship, with varying positions and where mutual distrust has been the dominant factor for years, four hours of talks were not sufficient to resolve all disagreements. Although everything was aimed at bridge-building between the leaders — from a restricted working lunch to a stroll through the magnificent gardens of the Filoli mansion — behind the smiles and expressions of goodwill the discrepancies were visible.
No plans to take Taiwan by force
Taiwan, the “most potentially dangerous issue in the relationship,” according to Xi, was the most obvious point of contention. As a senior U.S. official explained in a talk with reporters in Filoli, the Chinese leader insisted in his conversation with Biden that he prefers peaceful unification and his country has no plans, as of today, to take the island by force. But he “moved immediately to the conditions under which force could be used” — conditions that the White House did not wish to specify.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry communiqué indicates that Xi stressed to Biden that unification between China and Taiwan is “inevitable” and demanded that the United States stop providing weapons to the island.
For his part, the U.S. president raised complaints with his counterpart about China’s record on respect for human rights, economic and trade practices contrary to the market economy, and Beijing’s support for Russia.
That suspicion between the two governments has not dissipated was clear just minutes after the meeting concluded. “Trust but verify, as the old saying goes. That’s where I am,” Biden declared at his press conference when asked if the summit had increased his confidence in his interlocutor. And at the conclusion of his appearance before reporters, he turned to answer a shouted question about whether he still considered Xi a dictator, as he had labeled him earlier this year. “I mean, he’s a dictator in the sense that he — he is a guy who runs a country that — it’s a communist country that is based on a form of government totally different than ours,” he replied. That statement has already drawn Beijing’s “firm opposition” to “irresponsible” words.
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