After Year-Long Gap, Biden and Xi Meet to Discuss U.S.-China Ties, Economy

Chinese President Xi Jinping waves as he meets with U.S. President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, in Woodside, Calif., on Wednesday.

WOODSIDE, Calif. (Reuters) — U.S. President Joe Biden met Chinese leader Xi Jinping for the first time in a year on Wednesday for talks that may ease friction between the two superpowers over military conflicts, drug-trafficking and artificial intelligence.

Biden welcomed the Chinese leader at the Filoli estate, a country house and gardens about 50 kilometers south of San Francisco, where they will move later for a summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.

In opening remarks, Biden said the U.S. and China had to ensure that competition between them “does not veer into conflict” and manage their relationship “responsibly.” He said issues such as climate change, counter-narcotics and AI demanded their joint attention.

Xi told Biden 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 U.S.-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.”

The leaders will be seeking to reduce friction but deep progress on the vast differences separating them may have to wait for another day.

Biden and Xi will discuss a host of issues where the countries are on opposing sides including Taiwan, the South China Sea, the Israel-Hamas war, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, North Korea and human rights.

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 neighbors and a Middle East conflict that is dividing the United States from allies.

Experts say Xi will be looking for a smooth summit with Biden to show those at home concerned about the economy and dwindling foreign investment that he can successfully handle relations between the world’s two largest economies.

Efforts to carefully choreograph his visit may be upended in San Francisco despite efforts to drive homeless people from the streets. Xi’s route from the airport to the conference site on Tuesday was lined with demonstrators for and against China’s ruling Communist Party, an unusual sight for the leader, who last visited the United States in 2017.

Biden has sought direct diplomacy with Xi, betting that a personal relationship he has cultivated for a dozen years with the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong might salvage ties that have turned increasingly hostile.

Chong Ja Ian, a political science professor at the National University of Singapore, said the two sides are engaged in what Mao referred to during China’s civil war as “talk and fight, fight and talk”.

“That is, to talk while building up forces,” Chong said.

Biden is expected to press Xi to use his influence to urge Iran to avoid action that could spread the Israel-Hamas conflict across the Middle East.

He is also expected to raise alleged Chinese operations to influence foreign elections and human rights, including U.S. citizens Washington believes are wrongly detained in China.

U.S. officials expect concrete steps to restore staff-level conversations between the countries on issues from military-to-military communications, to reducing the flow of fentanyl, managing artificial intelligence, and on trade and climate.

Many of the chemicals used to make fentanyl, a scourge in the U.S., come from China, U.S. officials say.

Before the meeting, both countries backed a new renewable energy target and said they would work to reduce methane and plastic pollution, renewing climate cooperation suspended after former U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in 2022.

However, on Wednesday, China objected to a U.S. proposal for APEC members to incorporate sustainability and inclusivity into trade and investment policies, a source briefed on the negotiations said.

Biden, 80, presides over an economy that has outperformed expectations and most rich nations after the COVID-19 pandemic. He is seeking a second term in office.

He has corralled the nation’s traditional allies from Europe to Asia to confront Russia in Ukraine and stand up to China, although some have differences over the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Xi, a decade Biden’s junior, has tightened control over policy, state leaders, the media and military and changing the constitution. Recently, economic challenges have thrown the country off its three-decade growth trajectory.

Analysts say Xi’s position may be tempered by concern about the November 2024 U.S. presidential election and the potential for a less friendly U.S. president in Donald Trump.

“Beijing stands to gain more from collaborating with, rather than boycotting, the Biden administration during its remaining tenure,” said Tong Zhao of the Carnegie China think tank.