Biden and China's Xi Jinping meet in an effort to smooth tensions

SAN FRANCISCO — President Joe Biden met face-to-face with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, on Wednesday, breaking a yearlong silence marked by rising tensions that have stoked fears the two countries are on a path toward war.

The meeting took place at the 654-acre Filoli estate in Woodside, Calif., about 35 miles south of San Francisco, where the two leaders are also taking part in a separate summit meeting of Asian-Pacific nations.

Xi arrived at the estate at 11:15 a.m. local time. As he left his limousine, he walked toward the historic country house along a red carpet and was greeted by Biden, who had arrived earlier and was awaiting him in the doorway. The two briefly shook hands and waved to the press corps before entering the building.

Inside, they faced each other across a long rectangular table, with Chinese and American flags at the far end. They were flanked by their respective delegations. Biden sat between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.

In his opening remarks, Biden said that previous meetings between the two leaders have “always been candid, straightforward and useful.” He said that competition between China and the U.S. must not veer into conflict, a point he has been stressing for months.

U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of APEC summit, in Woodside (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of APEC summit, in Woodside (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

“I value our conversation because I think it’s paramount that you and I understand each other clearly, leader to leader, with no misconceptions or miscommunication,” Biden said.

Xi spoke next. Through an interpreter, he said that the two countries have the most important bilateral relationship in the world.

“For two large countries like China and the United States, turning their back on each other is not an option,” Xi said. “It is unrealistic for one side to remodel the other, and conflicts and confrontation has unbearable consequences for both sides.”

After the summit, Biden will hold a press conference, followed by an evening reception in San Francisco for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders, which Vice President Kamala Harris and first lady Jill Biden will also attend.

It is the first time that Biden and Xi have talked — much less met — since a meeting on the sidelines of a in Bali, Indonesia, a year ago. The visit is also the first time Xi has stepped foot in the U.S. since 2017.

In the hours before the meeting, John Kirby, a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council, told reporters: “I think we’re all expecting that this will be a productive discussion today. And hopefully, a precursor to much more communication and dialogue between our two teams going forward.”

Since the two leaders last met, relations between the U.S. and China have soured in ways that elevate the risk of an unwanted confrontation, U.S. officials said. As an example, when the Biden administration shot down a Chinese spy balloon that flew across the United States in February, the Pentagon had no one in China to contact because Beijing had closed an important military communications channel, a senior Biden administration official told reporters Tuesday while previewing the Biden-Xi meeting.

“It is true that when the Chinese spy balloon went across the United States, we had no way to communicate with the Chinese,” the official said. “That’s not responsible and we hope to at least take some preliminary steps” toward improving communications.

Image: President Joe Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping  (Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images)

Image: President Joe Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping (Brendan Smialowski / AFP – Getty Images)

U.S. officials believe that Biden entered the meeting from a position of strength. While the Chinese economy is struggling with high youth unemployment and disinvestment from foreign companies, Biden has boasted of robust economic growth in the U.S., accompanied by a low jobless rate.

After he arrived in San Francisco on Tuesday, Biden attended an evening fundraising event in which he said: “President Xi is another example of how re-establishing American leadership in the world is taking hold. They’ve got real problems, folks.”

No major breakthroughs were anticipated in advance of the summit. But the two leaders are expected to agree on steps to curb the flow of fentanyl from China to the U.S. and revive military communication channels that China closed in response to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last year.

China claims Taiwan, a self-ruling democracy, as its own, and viewed Pelosi’s trip as a provocation warranting a reprisal against the U.S.

“One of the key objectives that President Biden has is the resumption of military-to-military contact,” the senior official  said. “So, we want to see operational dialogues, we want to see policy dialogues at the highest level and we want to see the commanders have a dialogue about operations in the Indo-Pacific.”

Another of Biden’s aims may prove tougher to realize. Biden would like to see China use its influence with Iran to prevent the Israel-Hamas war from widening. He is likely to press Xi to call on Iran to stay clear of the war and keep its proxies in Middle East from attacking Israel.

At lower governmental levels, U.S. officials have already made that point to the Chinese, telling them that “any escalation would be met forcefully by the United States, and to urge the leaders in Tehran not to not spur elements in the region that could lead to a wider conflagration,” the senior official said.

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