U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to restore direct military-to-military communications and to a deal to stem the flow of fentanyl precursors out of China into the United States in talks Wednesday at a country estate just outside San Francisco.
The pair also reached a deal to start talks on the regulation of artificial intelligence, Biden said after the meeting, before reiterating a comment he made earlier this year in which he described Xi as a “dictator.”
The three deals were announced after about four hours of direct talks – only their second in-person since Biden took office – at Filoli, a country estate outside San Francisco surrounded by 16 acres of gardens.
“We’re reassuming military-to-military contact,” Biden said in a press conference after the talks, adding the lack of a direct line between the two countries’ militaries over the past three years was dangerous.
“That’s how accidents happen. Misunderstandings,” he said. “So we’re back to direct, open, clear communications on a direct basis.”
Biden also said Xi had agreed to crack down on the export from China of precursors for the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which has been labeledthe biggest killer of American adults aged 18 to 49. He said it would “save lives” and that he appreciated Xi’s commitment to the issue.
But leaving the press conference, Biden was goaded into a question about whether he stood by a comment he made in June calling Xi a “dictator,” which Beijing said was “extremely absurd and irresponsible.”
“Well look, he is,” Biden said. “I mean, he’s a dictator in the sense that he’s the guy who runs a country that’s a communist country.”
For Xi, who last visited the United States in April 2017, the trip is about shoring-up China’s struggling economic situation by encouraging U.S. businesses to continue investing billions of dollars across the Pacific.
To that end, the Chinese president returned to downtown San Francisco after the talks with Biden to address top U.S. business leaders at a dinner hosted by the U.S.-China Business Council.
U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo introduced Xi to the almost 400 attendees, which included Apple CEO Tim Cook, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink and Visa CEO Ryan McInerney, according to Bloomberg.
Raimondo said continued trade growth with China was in U.S. interests, and that the two economies could not be decoupled, even if the two powers are engaged in fierce geostrategic competition.
“We have a large, consequential, significant, economic relationship with China that sustains over a million jobs here in America,” Raimondo said. “We want to trade with China. We want robust trade with China on a level playing field, [trade] that is reciprocal and that is fair.”
But she said the United States needed to restrict certain goods, such as advanced microchips, from export to China, to “protect our most sensitive technology, quite frankly, so it can’t be used against us.”
Xi said China had “no intention to challenge the United States or to unseat it.” But he said he often struggled with how to “steer the giant ship of China-U.S. relations clear of hitting rocks and shoals” in a way that avoided “getting disoriented” or “having a collision.”
“In this respect, the number one question for us is, are we adversaries or partners?” Xi said. “This is the fundamental and overarching issue.
“If one sees the other side as ‘a primary competitor,’ ‘the most consequential geopolitical challenge’ and ‘a pacing threat,’ it will only lead to misinformed policymaking, misguided actions and unwanted results. China is ready to be a partner and friend of the United States.”
In apparent reference to Beijing’s long-held desires to unite the mainland with the self-governing island of Taiwan, which he last year said may eventually be done through “use of force,” Xi also told the U.S. business leaders not to fear a conflict started by China.
“I often say that what the Chinese people oppose is war. What they want is stability. And what they hope for is enduring world peace,” Xi said. “The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation cannot be achieved without a peaceful and stable international environment.”
‘Coexist in peace’
Biden and Xi otherwise appeared at pains to strike a conciliatory tone.
A senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity to speak about the talks, said while U.S. officials would give Chinese law enforcement time to make progress on fentanyl, Biden considered it the most “central” and “important” part for the American people.
“We’re going to want to see whether China continues to follow up,” the official said. Ultimately, he added, “the proof is in the pudding.”
Earlier, Biden greeted Xi with a warm handshake before starting talks.
“Well, Mr. President, it’s good to see you again,” Biden said, adding that there is “no substitute to face-to-face discussions.”
“It’s paramount that you and I understand each other clearly, leader-to-leader, with no misconceptions or miscommunication,” he said. “We have to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict, and we have to manage it responsibly.”
Xi also struck a conciliatory tone, saying China and the United States should strive to “coexist in peace” despite their differences.
“The China-U.S. relationship has never been smooth sailing over the past 50 years or more, and it always faces problems of one kind or another,” Xi said. “Yet it has kept moving forward.”
“For two large countries like China and the United States, turning their back on each other is not an option,” the Chinese president added. “Planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed, and one country’s success is an opportunity for the other.”
Both Xi and Biden are in San Francisco for this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC, summit, which has been headlined by their plans to meet amid tense times for U.S.-China relations.
“What we’re trying to do is change the relationship for the better,” Biden said while leaving Washington on Tuesday, adding he wanted to help “the Chinese people, who are in trouble right now economically.”
A senior White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the Biden-Xi summit ahead of time, said that the summit was of critical importance for repairing U.S.-China ties, even as he cautioned that the relationship was now largely one of competing interests.
Xi’s accumulation of personal power within the Chinese system of government “over the last several years” meant that lower-level diplomacy was often not fruitful, the official said, meaning the direct talks were taking on a higher level of importance than usual.
“Frankly, if you really have to do serious diplomacy, it has to take place at the very top,” he said. “So the stakes really just couldn’t be higher.”