Expectations were low going into this week’s meeting between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping on the side of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in San Francisco. Since their last meeting in Bali one year ago, bilateral relations have deteriorated to the lowest point in decades and risk spilling over into conflict. That both leaders finally agreed to talk in person was seen by many as a positive step in itself, albeit the bare minimum responsibility for the world’s two superpowers. The encounter has provided a delicate foundation for rebuilding trust and pursuing cooperation, despite their differences and enduring structural competition.
At the Financial Times, Demetri Sevastopulo, Ryan McMorrow, and Joe Leahy described the summit as a sign of progress after a period of high tensions:
At a press conference held after Xi had departed for San Francisco to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, Biden said they had held some of their “most constructive and productive discussions”.
[…] One summit was never likely to resolve the fundamental issues driving the rivalry between the US and China. Beijing resents the way the global order has been created in America’s image, while Washington fears the rise of a potential peer competitor which is bent on squeezing the US military out of the western Pacific.
But it presented an opening to easier relations going forward, experts say, which will reassure Washington’s allies in the region who are looking anxiously ahead to a year that starts with a presidential election in Taiwan and ends with one in the US.
“This creates a more permissive environment for the two sides to work together on a list of global issues,” says Amanda Hsiao, a China expert at the International Crisis Group, “and makes it less likely that the US and China will accidentally stumble into a kinetic [military] conflict.” [Source]
Many commentators were measured in their assessments of the summit’s outcome. Jeremy Wallace argued that, “In short, Biden and Xi talked, and talk between nuclear-armed superpowers is usually a good thing. But the tangible outcomes from this summit appear limited.” Bill Bishop added, “We may be entering a period of relative calm in the US-China relationship, though there is no reason to think that period will be more than a tactical stabilization.” Despite the attainment of certain objectives, David Sacks wrote, “this does not erase the fact that Washington and Beijing are engaged in a long-term strategic competition that is driven by structural factors and shows no sign of abating,” adding, “any reduction in tensions is likely to prove short-lived.”
Biden and Xi achieved several concrete deliverables. Most notably, both sides agreed to resume high-level military communications and to establish a counternarcotics working group to curb illicit fentanyl production in China. They also discussed AI regulations and reiterated their positions on Taiwan. Biden raised concerns about Americans detained in China and human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong. At an expensive dinner for U.S. business executives, Xi signaled that China would send new pandas to the U.S.
However, distance remains between the two sides. The meeting produced no joint statement; instead, the Chinese and American governments each published separate readouts. In his Tracking People’s Daily Substack, Manoj Kewalramani outlined several clear differences in perspectives between each side based on their readouts:
On the nature of the relationship, Biden was unequivocal that the US and China “are in competition”. Xi clearly does not want to accept the framework of competition, arguing that “major power competition cannot solve the problems facing China, the US and the world.”
While Biden talked about America’s “ironclad commitment to defending our Indo-Pacific allies” and that the US will “invest in the sources of American strength at home and align with allies and partners around the world”, Xi sees this as containment. He warned quite clearly that the US should not scheme to suppress and contain China.
On technology de-risking, Biden pitched this as a security imperative and was clear that this will continue. Xi, on the other hand, was clear that China does not see it as a national security issue for the US. He said: “suppressing China’s science and technology is to curb China’s high-quality development and deprive the Chinese people of their right to development.”
On Taiwan, Xi had specific asks, i.e., the US should stop arming Taiwan and support China’s peaceful reunification. He was also adamant about the US not crossing “red lines” and “flip-flopping.” Biden, meanwhile, said that the US opposes any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side and called for restraint by the PLA. Clearly, stability is important to both, but these positions are not exactly in congruence with each other. [Source]
Ahead of the meeting, Chinese state media softened its anti-U.S. rhetoric. After the meeting, the positive coverage continued somewhat, as expressed by the key barometer of the People’s Daily front page, as David Bandurski explained at China Media Project:
The bottom line in China’s state media today, the day after Xi Jinping met in California with US President Joe Biden, can perhaps be best summed up in just two words: friendly, and firm. On the front page of today’s edition of the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper, the visual atmosphere could be described as congenial. The images that draw focus are those of Xi and Biden shaking hands warmly, a smile breaking across Xi’s face, and below of the two men strolling elbow to elbow on the verdant grounds of California’s Filoli Estate — in a frontward facing view, mind you, underscoring the symmetry of the relationship.
[…W]e can say in sum that the general sense of good feeling on this People’s Daily front page speaks to the basic tone the CCP leadership would like to strike. It is important not only, in other words, that Biden and Xi had a “frank and in-depth exchange of views,” but that, as the lede report states today, “Xi was warmly greeted by Biden upon his arrival at the Filoli Estate.” [Source]
Other state media compensated for Xi’s less than central position in official APEC group photographs with aggressive cropping:
Centralizing Xi Jinping is imperative🙏 pic.twitter.com/OtfKJUdpti
— Alfred M. Wu (@alfredmwu) November 17, 2023
Broadcast news was also carefully curated. Censors in China cut the feed of Bloomberg TV four times during Biden’s press conference. In his CCTV Follies Substack, Phil Cunningham showed how Xi outshone Biden by a ten-to-one ratio of air time, images, and words spoken on CCTV’s evening news:
But it’s during the televised remarks that Xi’s natural dominance and volubility come into play. Xi gets the first word, the last word and almost every other word in between.
CCTV airs a total of twenty Biden reaction shots to over two dozen shots of Xi pontificating. Biden is uniformly shown to be attentive, sometimes nodding in agreement, sometimes taking notes.
[…] When Joe Biden finally speaks, CCTV gives him a fraction of the time, and a good deal of that truncated air time is wasted on Biden expressing a ritual words of welcome to Xi Jinping. [Source]
On social media, Chinese users expressed a variety of reactions. “This [meeting] is a historic moment,” one Weibo user wrote, while another struck a cautionary tone: “I hope the US can act on their words.” In response to Biden’s press-conference comment about Xi being a dictator, one user quipped on X, “If he said ‘Xi is China’s emperor’ Xi would have loved it.” On a more positive note, after Biden complimented Xi’s car before his departure, the hashtag “Biden Points at Hongqi Car, Calls it Beautiful” #拜登指着红旗车说beautiful#) had racked up over 300 million views on Weibo by Thursday night. At the South China Morning Post, Jane Cai described some of the activity on Chinese social media:
On the social media platform Weibo, the most searched hashtags on Thursday included “Biden reaffirms no support for Taiwan independence”, “China will reunify Taiwan with the mainland ultimately”, “the US should not plan to suppress and contain China”, “Planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed”, and “the two leaders bid farewell”.
[…] On the country’s heavily censored social media platforms, only a small portion of the tens of thousands of comments were visible to users, with many posts calling for “mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and cooperation and win-win”. [Source]
Xi’s visit to the U.S. also united different activist groups protesting against him. “Our issues are not as separate anymore. It’s more about how marginalized communities can learn to use our forces and rise up together,” said Anna Kwok, Executive Director of the Hong Kong Democracy Council (HKDC), referening to cooperation between Hong Kong, Uyghur, and Tibetan protesters. However, activists from HKDC Students for a Free Tibet (SFT) shared accounts of pro-China groups physically harassing them during their protests. One group reportedly .comsurrounded Uyghur concentration camp survivor Tursunay with Chinese flags. Another attacked SFT protesters with umbrellas and metal poles and followed them home. Yet another masked group, which HKDC claimed were Chinese security agents, assaulted four SFT protesters and stole their banner.
This violence was a symbol of lingering tension in the broader bilateral relationship. The progress resulting from Biden’s diplomacy with Xi has come at the expense of certain human rights concerns:
Biden got Xi to bend on fentanyl for a steep price: dropping sanctions on a Chinese police facility that Commerce Dept decreed was “complicit in human rights violations” against Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups via @carmenpaun https://t.co/ZGttJkYOlU
— Phelim Kine “老 康“ (@PhelimKine) November 17, 2023