Chinese President Xi Jinping voiced messages of peace and reassurance in this talks with US President Joe Biden and business executives in San Francisco on Wednesday.
“Planet Earth is big enough for the two countries [US and China] to succeed,” he said during his introductory address to Biden and his team early in the day in the lead-up to four hours of talks on Taiwan and a whole range of concerns.
There was notable progress in their first face-to-face exchange in a year, with the two sides agreeing to open a presidential hotline, to resume military-to-military communications and work to curb fentanyl production.
And later, in an address to business executives, the Chinese leader sought to play down fears of the two countries’ relations sinking into conflict. “China does not seek spheres of influence and will not fight a cold war or a hot war with anyone,” he said.
Biden and Xi met on the outskirts of San Francisco to try to resolve issues that have strained bilateral ties. They plan to resume military contacts that China severed after then-House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August 2022.
“We’re back to direct, open clear direct communication on a direct basis,” Biden told reporters afterward.
In addition, Biden said he and Xi agreed to high-level communications. “He and I agreed that each one of us can pick up the phone call directly and we’ll be heard immediately.”
But in a comment likely to irk the Chinese, Biden told reporters later that he had not changed his view that Xi is a dictator.
“Well, look, he is. I mean, he’s a dictator in the sense that he is a guy who runs a country that is a communist country,” Biden said.
Xi told Biden that the negative views of the Communist Party in the United States were unfair, a US official told reporters after the meeting.
Biden and Xi came into the talks looking to smooth over a rocky period in relations that took a turn for the worse after a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon transited the United States and was shot down by a US fighter jet in February.
Biden said he raised areas where Washington has concerns, including detained US citizens, human rights and Beijing’s aggressive activities in the South China Sea.
“Just talking, just being blunt with one another so there’s no misunderstanding,” Biden said.
Biden requested that both countries institutionalize the military-to-military dialogues, and US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin will meet his Chinese counterpart when that person is named, a senior US official said.
US and China’s militaries have had a number of near-misses and acrimonious exchanges over the past year.
Biden and Xi agreed China would stem the export of items related to the production of the opioid fentanyl, a leading cause of drug overdoses in the United States. “It’s going to save lives,” Biden said, adding he appreciated Xi’s “commitment” on the issue.
Under the agreement, China will go directly after specific chemical companies that make fentanyl precursors, a senior US official told reporters. He vowed to “trust but verify” Chinese actions on the drug.
The two leaders also agreed to get experts together to discuss the risks of artificial intelligence.
A US official described an exchange over Taiwan, the democratic island that China claims as its territory. China’s preference is for peaceful reunification with the Chinese-claimed island of Taiwan, Xi told Biden, the US official said, but Xi went on to talk about conditions in which force could be used.
Biden said he stressed the need for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. The US official said Biden argued to maintain the status quo and for China to respect Taiwan’s electoral process.
“President Xi responded ‘Look, peace is all well and good, but at some point we need to move towards resolution more generally’,” the official quoted Xi as saying.
Xi also urged the United States to stop sending weapons to Taiwan and support China’s peaceful “reunification” with Taiwan, Chinese state media said.
Biden said he asked Xi to use his influence with Iran to urge Tehran not to launch proxy attacks on US targets in the Middle East as the Israel-Hamas conflict continues in Gaza.
Biden welcomed the Chinese leader at the Filoli estate, a country house and well-manicured gardens about 48km south of San Francisco, where they will move later for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.
Xi came into the meeting looking for respect from the United States as China’s economy struggles to recover from sluggish growth. And he was clearly also seeking to improve fast-cooling business dealings with the world’s biggest economy.
A US commission said in a report to Congress on Tuesday that “China may now be on the verge of its most serious economic crisis in 40 years.”
Biden, who had long sought the meeting, struck a welcoming tone aimed at showing respect, and treated him as a major player on global hotspots.
Xi told Biden as they began their talks a lot had happened since their last meeting a year ago in Bali. “The world has emerged from the Covid pandemic, but is still under its tremendous impacts. The global economy is recovering, but its momentum remains sluggish.”
He called the US-China relationship “the most important bilateral relationship in the world,” and said he and Biden “shoulder heavy responsibilities for the two peoples, for the world, and for history.”
“For two large countries like China and the United States, turning their back on each other is not an option,” he said. “It is unrealistic for one side to remodel the other, and conflict and confrontation has unbearable consequences for both sides.”
Biden said the US and China had to ensure that competition between them “does not veer into conflict” and manage their relationship “responsibly.”
After lunch, the leaders took a short walk together in the manicured garden of the mansion following talks between the two delegations. Biden waved to reporters and gave a two thumbs up sign when asked how the talks were going. “Well,” he said.
Leaders from the 21-country group APEC – and hundreds of CEOs in San Francisco to court them – are meeting amid relative Chinese economic weakness, Beijing’s territorial feuds with neighbours and a Middle East conflict that is dividing the United States from allies.
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