By Aamer Madhani, Colleen Long and Didi Tang
President Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping opened their first face-to-face meeting in more than a year Wednesday with a solid handshake ahead of talks with far-reaching implications for a world grappling with economic cross currents, wars in the Middle East and Europe, tensions in Taiwan and more.
The two leaders, meeting at a bucolic country estate outside San Francisco, are looking to get communication back on track after a tumultuous year and to show the world that while they are global economic competitors, they’re not locked in a winner-take-all faceoff.
Biden arrived first and awaited Xi, who got out of a black car and took Biden's hand in a warm, hand-over-hand clasp before the two leaders walked a red carpet through the estate's grand entrance with a China flag on one side and a U.S. flag on the other. Five Marines stood in formation.
The two kicked off talks discussing how important and necessary the relationship is between the two nations, particularly as the world recovers from the global pandemic. Biden said the goal of the summit was for the leaders to “understand each other,” and Xi said they bear “heavy responsibilities” for the world.
“For two large countries like China, United States, turning their back on each other is not an option,” Xi said through a translator. “Planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed.”
Biden noted that the two leaders have known each other for years but haven't always agreed, and stressed how important their in-person meeting was Wednesday.
“It’s paramount that you and I understand each other clearly, leader-to-leader, with no misconceptions or miscommunication,” Biden said.
Since they last met, already fraught ties have been further strained by the U.S. downing of a Chinese spy balloon that had traversed the continental U.S. and by differences on the self-ruled island of Taiwan, China’s hacking of a Biden official's emails and other incidents.
Biden is expected to let Xi know that he would like China to use its sway over Iran to make clear that Tehran or its proxies should not take action that could lead to expansion of the Israel-Hamas war. The Biden administration also sees the Chinese, a big buyer of Iranian oil, as having considerable leverage with Iran, which is a major backer of Hamas.
Ahead of the meeting, senior White House officials said Biden would walk away with better, more concrete outcomes compared with their last meeting, in November 2022 in Bali, Indonesia on the sidelines of the Group of 20 leaders summit. There will be agreements from China to help stop the flow of chemicals used in the production of illicit fentanyl, and to revive communications between the militaries - increasingly important particularly as unsafe or unprofessional incidents between the two nations’ ships and aircraft have spiked.
Biden on Tuesday billed the meeting as a chance to get Washington and Beijing back “on a normal course corresponding” once again.
But White House National Council spokesman John Kirby said Biden was “not going to be afraid to confront where confrontation is needed on issues where we don’t see eye to eye.”
"We’re also not going to be afraid, nor should we be afraid, as a confident nation, to engage in diplomacy on ways which we can cooperate with China -- on climate change, for instance, and clean energy technology,” Kirby said.
Biden will be focused on managing the countries’ increasingly fierce economic competition and keeping open lines of communication to prevent misunderstandings that could lead to direct conflict between the two powers.
While he's expected to defend U.S. expansion of export controls on semiconductor chips, he also will assure Xi that the U.S. is not trying to wage economic war with Beijing amid continuing signs that China’s economy is struggling to recover from the disruptions of the pandemic.
Xi, meanwhile, is looking for assurances from Biden that the U.S. will not support Taiwan independence, start a new cold war or suppress China’s economic growth. He's also keen to show the U.S. that China is still a good place to invest.
Even before their meeting, there were some signs of a thaw: The State Department on Tuesday announced that the U.S. and China -- two of the world's biggest polluters -- had agreed to pursue efforts to triple renewable energy capacity globally by 2030, through wind, solar and other renewables.
They are in California for the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, but they met one-on-one at Filoli Estate, a country house and museum about 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of San Francisco.
The APEC summit events already have attracted considerable demonstrations and more were expected Wednesday, including protests against Xi and against multinational corporations focused on profits.
In the hours before the meeting, White House officials said Biden was coming into the talks bolstered by signs the U.S. economy is in a stronger position than China's, and that the U.S. is building stronger stronger alliances throughout the Pacific.
The U.S. president, speaking at a campaign fundraiser on Tuesday evening, pointed to his upcoming meeting as an example of how “reestablished American leadership in the world is taking hold.” As for China, the president told donors, it has ”real problems."
The International Monetary Fund recently cut growth forecasts for China, predicting economic growth of 5% this year and 4.2% in 2024, down slightly from previous forecasts. Last month, Beijing released economic data that showed prices falling due to slack demand from consumers and businesses.
Biden, meanwhile, has taken pride in proving wrong a large swath of economists who predicted that millions of layoffs and a recession might be needed to bring down inflation. The Labor Department said Tuesday that consumer prices rose at an annual pace of 3.2% annually, down from a June 2022 peak of 9.1%. Meanwhile, employers keep hiring and the unemployment rate has held below 4% for nearly two years.
Xi, after his meeting with Biden on Wednesday, will address American business executives at a $2,000-per-plate dinner that will be a rare opportunity for U.S. business leaders to hear directly from the Chinese leader as they seek clarification on Beijing’s expanding security rules that may choke foreign investment.
Foreign companies operating in China say tensions with Washington over technology, trade and other issues and uncertainty over Chinese policies are damaging the business environment and causing some to reassess their plans for investing in the giant market.
A senior Biden administration official who briefed reporters ahead of the meeting said one big reason why Xi decided to make the trip to the U.S. was to send the message to American CEOs that China was still a good place to invest. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House.
Robert Moritz, global chairman for the consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, said business leaders will be looking for signs of more cooperation and a firmer commitment to free trade between the world’s two largest economies following Wednesday’s meeting between Biden and Xi.
“What we are looking for is a de-escalation and a bringing of the temperature down,” Mortiz said during a CEO summit in conjunction with APEC.
“Discussion isn’t good enough, it’s the execution on getting things done” that will matter, Moritz said.
Long and Tang reported from San Francisco. Associated Press journalist Sagar Meghani in Washington and Michael Liedtke in San Francisco contributed to this report.
Updated November 15, 2023 at 3:24 p.m. ET with the latest details.