America

Biden-Xi Talks Lead to Little but a Promise to Keep Talking

President Biden said on Wednesday that four hours of discussion with President Xi Jinping of China had brought about two significant agreements, on curbing fentanyl production and on military-to-military communications.

But both American and Chinese accounts of their first encounter in a year indicated little progress on the issues that have pushed the two nations to the edge of conflict.

Emerging from the talks, and a brief walk with Mr. Xi on the grounds of a mansion south of San Francisco, Mr. Biden told reporters that the conversation had been the “most constructive and productive” between the two men since Mr. Biden had come to office. The agreements they announced were modest, however, and their most important commitments were to keep talking and to pick up the phone in times of crisis.

On one of the critical issues, barring the use of artificial intelligence in the command and control systems of their nuclear arsenals, no formal set of discussions was established. Instead, Mr. Biden’s aides said that Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, would keep talking with Wang Yi, China’s chief foreign affairs official.

Mr. Biden went out of his way to show respect for Mr. Xi, greeting him at the entrance to Filoli, a century-old mansion with gardens that was chosen as a private locale for the leaders of the world’s two most critical military, technological and economic superpowers to talk. Mr. Xi also sounded accommodating when he arrived, telling Mr. Biden, “Planet Earth is big enough” for both superpowers. He told Mr. Biden that their countries were very different but should be “fully capable of rising above differences.”

Those are the standard niceties of diplomatic encounters between the two countries, especially in recent months, as Chinese leaders have begun to worry about the flight of American investors from the country.

But at the end of a news conference Wednesday evening, after Mr. Xi had departed, Mr. Biden was asked whether he still regarded Mr. Xi as a dictator. Mr. Biden had used the word, to China’s fury, earlier in the year.

“Well, look, he is,” Mr. Biden said. “I mean, he’s a dictator in the sense that he’s a guy who runs a country that is a Communist country.”

Mr. Biden went out of his way to show respect for Mr. Xi, greeting him at the entrance to the Filoli estate.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Mr. Biden’s aides had gone to some lengths in recent days to diminish expectations for the encounter, even while arguing that China’s economic downturn has, for the first time, put a Chinese leader on his back foot while dealing with the United States. But by the American and Chinese accounts, the leaders largely repeated old talking points about Taiwan, even as Mr. Xi voiced worries that the coming election on the island could lead to talk of independence — one of the “red lines” that Chinese officials have said could force them to take military action.

The leaders agreed to resume military-to-military communications, which China had cut off after Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan last year, when she was speaker of the House. Such commitments to communicate — for transparency, and to avert collisions and crises — have been made before, and Mr. Biden made the case that military channels had to remain open to prevent potential clashes. It is unclear how Mr. Xi responded.

They took up the issue of fentanyl, a potent drug that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. Mr. Biden later described the outline of an agreement that would commit Beijing to regulating components of fentanyl. But China has made similar commitments before.

The two men also spoke about the technology race between their countries, which sits at the core of their increasingly bitter competition. Mr. Xi complained about escalating American export restrictions on advanced computer chips, which are fundamental to China’s technological ambitions. Those include the development of advanced weaponry, surveillance products and artificial intelligence programs.

Mr. Xi contended that Mr. Biden’s real goal was to strangle China’s industrial competitiveness, a senior administration official said. Mr. Biden pushed back, the official said, saying he would not provide any technology that China could use for military purposes.

“We’re in a competitive relationship, China and the United States,” Mr. Biden said at his news conference. “But my responsibility is to make this rational and manageable so it doesn’t result in conflict. That’s what I’m all about. That’s what this is about. To find a place where we can come together and find mutual interests.”

In fact, there are far fewer of areas of collaboration than there were just a few years ago, when meetings between Chinese leaders and American presidents often yielded joint action. On Wednesday, there was no discussion of North Korea, whose arsenal is now far larger than it was in the era of U.S.-Chinese cooperation, and Mr. Biden’s effort to convince Mr. Xi to help moderate Iran’s influence met no immediate agreement.

The two leaders issued no joint statement. There appeared to have been only brief discussion of the most aggressive actions that have come close to triggering disasters: the scores of Chinese intercepts of American planes that the U.S. says are flying in international airspace, or the confrontations in disputed waters off the Philippines and the South China Sea.

When Mr. Biden mentioned the accelerated Chinese military activity around Taiwan since Ms. Pelosi’s visit, Mr. Xi responded by asking why the United States was arming the island, and called for an end to those arms sales. In fact, the U.S. is likely to accelerate those sales, based on the lessons learned from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Mr. Biden, in reporting on his discussions, made no mention of China’s provision of technology — but not arms — to Russia to prosecute that war. Nor did he talk about China’s partnership with Russia, though a year ago he said he doubted it would flourish.

There was some discussion, aides say, of the rapid growth of China’s nuclear arsenal. But Mr. Xi’s government has declined to enter nuclear arms control talks, insistent that first it must come to parity with the stockpiles held by the United States and Russia.

When Mr. Xi began the day by pulling up at the Filoli estate, he arrived in a Chinese-made limousine with no license plate. In somewhat stiff and carefully choreographed statements, he and Mr. Biden offered the usual assurances that they could accomplish much when working together, but alluded to darker alternatives if they failed.

“For two large countries like China and the United States, turning their back on each other is not an option,” said Mr. Xi, whose own private speeches to his party faithful and his generals have painted a portrait of two countries that may well be headed for a collision. He added that conflict and confrontation have “unbearable consequences for both sides.”

Mr. Biden referred frequently to past meetings with Mr. Xi dating back 15 years, but he resisted the temptation to describe the two as old friends, something he used to do regularly. “I value our conversation because I think it’s paramount that you and I understand each other clearly,” he said, “leader to leader, with no misconceptions or miscommunication.”

“We have to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict,” he said.

President Biden said he had told Mr. Xi that the U.S. does not want China to interfere in any way in Taiwan’s affairs.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

The interactions between the two leaders at Filoli had been carefully planned for months. Senior Chinese officials had discussed them in meetings with Mr. Biden’s most trusted aides, including Mr. Sullivan and Antony J. Blinken, the secretary of state. Both men were sitting at the boardroom-style table set out in the estate’s ballroom, with Mr. Biden flanked by Mr. Blinken and Janet L. Yellen, the Treasury secretary.

Mr. Xi arrived at a rare moment of seeming weakness. After decades of rocketing growth, China’s economy has slowed. Later Wednesday, he met with American chief executives as he made the case for stepping up investment in China, which has begun to decline. That is partly because of China’s dimmer economic prospects, but also because the country has begun to prosecute firms that reveal Chinese economic data or conduct “due diligence” on the performance of Chinese firms before outsiders invest.

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