The presidents of the United States, Joe Biden, and China, Xi Jinping, showed harmony and a conciliatory spirit at the start of their long-awaited summit on Wednesday at a mansion on the outskirts of San Francisco. In a remarkable turnaround in what has been a more than icy relationship over the last nine months, the leader of the Asian giant has assured that both countries must be able to overcome their differences. The American stressed his country’s interest in making sure the rivalry between the two world giants “does not veer into conflict.”
“Conflict and confrontation has unbearable consequences for both sides,” said the Chinese leader with a smile, as he sat in front of Biden. On either side of the two presidents, a long line of advisors in dark suits looked on solemnly. Presiding over the room were two large flags of their respective countries. Biden, for his part, stressed the importance of this type of meeting. “As always, there’s no substitute to face-to-face discussions. We’ve known each other for a long time. We haven’t always agreed,” he admitted, before adding that their meeting had always been frank, direct and useful.
They decided to set aside, at least for the day, the abysmal differences on issues such as human rights, the situation in Taiwan, control of the South China Sea or technological competition. All of these issues were to be addressed, like the war between Israel and Hamas or the conflict in Ukraine, during the hours of meetings scheduled for Wednesday.
Both had greeted each other on their arrival at the Filoli residence with a handshake, without making statements to the press, surrounded by intense security that had cut off the accesses from miles around, filled the parking lots with police vehicles and crowded the lavish gardens with agents of the U.S. secret service and the Chinese presidential bodyguard corps. In a sign, perhaps, of the fear of foreign covid strains that Beijing implanted in its citizens during three years of pandemic, a good part of the Chinese agents wore facemasks.
The meeting is key: China comes with a sluggish economy; the United States, under pressure from conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East. The meeting is aimed at preventing the rivalry between the United States and China, the world’s two great economic powers, from turning into a confrontation, insisted a senior official who spoke on condition of anonymity to reporters accompanying the U.S. president on his visit to San Francisco for the summit with Xi and the annual meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.
It is the first time the two leaders have had direct contact since they met face-to-face in November 2022 in Bali, Indonesia, during the G-20 summit. They agreed then to take steps to bolster the weakened trust between the two countries and relaunch the world’s most important bilateral relationship, adrift since then-President Donald Trump’s administration and Beijing imposed tariffs on tens of billions of dollars of products from their respective countries in 2018.
A delicate and intense diplomatic choreography
The incident of the Chinese hot-air balloon that crossed US territory last February before being shot down cancelled these good intentions for months. Achieving the meeting required a diplomatic choreography as delicate as it was intense: meetings of the respective national security advisors in Vienna and Malta, trips by the Secretaries of State, Treasury and Commerce to Beijing and reciprocal visits to Washington and San Francisco by high-ranking Chinese officials. Meanwhile, Biden and Xi were still not even in telephone contact.
After greetings in the gardens of Filoli, a 264-acre estate in Woodside, 40 kilometers away from San Francisco, the two leaders held a series of meetings alone and with their teams of advisors. Their talks were complemented by a working lunch, where the menu included herbed ricotta ravioli, artichoke crisp, tarragon-scented roast chicken and almond meringue pie with Concorde grape sauce. At the end of the meeting, Biden was to hold a press conference at 4.15 p.m. local time alone.
The two presidents are not expected to issue a joint statement: their positions are too far apart on all kinds of issues. But a number of agreements could emerge. Washington is pinning its hopes on reaching a pact to restore direct communications between their respective militaries, something it considers essential to prevent any of the numerous encounters between their patrols in the vicinity of Taiwan or the South China Sea from escalating into a crisis with serious consequences. These types of contacts have been on hold since August 2022, when the then Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, visited Taiwan on a trip that sparked Beijing’s ire.
In addition, other areas of dialogue in the economic and trade areas, as well as on technology will be important and will continue beyond the summit in the San Francisco Bay Area. The two countries already issued a statement on Tuesday night to increase cooperation in the fight against climate change, one of the major areas in which Washington and Beijing — the world’s leading emitters — share interests.
But the White House cautions against overly high expectations. There is a clear recognition that the context is “different” and that the summits of today — and those that may come in the future — are no longer like those of a few years ago, in which success was measured by the number of agreements signed. Even if those agreements, in many cases, were never implemented. Now, “the context of the U.S.-China relationship is one of competition. And, therefore, what we are taking are steps to prevent competition from escalating into confrontation, something that the president has made very clear is in the interest of the United States, its partners and allies.”
The two leaders also discussed the situation of Taiwan, the island with a democratic regime which China considers part of its territory and which it does not renounce to unify by military means. Taiwan holds elections in January and Beijing prefers a victory for the conservative Kuomintang, which is more in favor of good relations with the other side of the strait. It would view with horror a victory of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), in government for the last eight years and which has maintained an increasingly distant relationship with Xi’s Executive. At the same time, President Tsai Ing Wen has maintained increasingly close ties with Washington.
Neutrality in elections
Beijing hopes to obtain some kind of U.S. assurance of its neutrality in these elections. Washington, on the other hand, maintains it will make clear its determination to support Taiwanese democracy, celebrate it as an important achievement and one in which it has great confidence. The United States broke off diplomatic relations with the island when it officially established them with Beijing in 1979, but maintains them informally.
The U.S. president will also ask his Chinese counterpart to convey a message to Iran, the great antagonist of the United States in the Middle East and with which Beijing maintains good relations. According to the White House, Biden will indicate to Xi that it is “essential” that Tehran avoids actions that could widen the current conflict between Israel and Hamas. Any move by the Islamic regime in that direction would be met with a “strong response” from the United States.
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