US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping spent some four hours together on Wednesday in their first face-to-face meeting in a year.
As they convened at the Filoli Estate in northern California, the two leaders were aiming to make some headway in rebuilding ties strained over a whole host of issues – from trade to Taiwan, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the pandemic.
Biden talked of “real progress” after the meeting, where talks continued over a lunch of ravioli, chicken and broccolini, and during a stroll around the estate’s manicured gardens.
China’s state media described a “candid and in-depth exchange of views”.
Here are five takeaways from the talks:
Military and personal communication
In probably the most substantive outcome of the talks, the two leaders agreed to resume military contacts that China severed after the then Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August 2022.
According to the Pentagon’s most recent report on China’s military power, Beijing had “denied, cancelled or ignored” military-to-military communications and meetings with the Pentagon, which raised “the risk of an operational incident or miscalculation spiralling into crisis or conflict”.
The Biden-Xi agreement means that US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will be able to speak to his Chinese counterpart once someone is named to the job, a senior US official told reporters, and that similar engagements would be possible up and down the military chain of command.
The Pentagon welcomed the move and said it was key to avoiding inadvertent conflict.
“Maintaining open lines of communication between our two militaries is essential to avoid misunderstandings and miscalculations that could lead to crisis or conflict,” a Pentagon spokesperson said.
The US president also emphasised the importance of open communications between the two presidents.
“He and I agreed that each one of us can pick up the phone call directly, and we’ll be heard immediately,” Biden told reporters after the meeting.
Biden and Xi have had a long working relationship, dating from when they were both vice presidents.
“It was 12 years ago,” Xi said in brief public remarks. “I still remember our interactions very vividly, and it always gives me a lot of thoughts.”
Biden also emphasised the length of their relationship and the value of those interactions.
“We haven’t always agreed, which was not a surprise to anyone, but our meetings have always been candid, straightforward and useful,” Biden said.
According to China’s state broadcaster, the island of Taiwan was a key area of discussion for Xi.
Beijing claims the self-ruled democracy as its own and has not ruled out the use of force to take control of the island.
The United States, on the other hand, while maintaining formal diplomatic relations with Beijing, follows a policy of “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan and is the island’s main source of weapons.
A US official described the talks as “clear-headed” and “not heated” with Biden chiding China over its massive military build-up around the island and declaring the US was committed to continuing to help Taiwan defend itself.
For his part, Xi insisted that the island was part of China.
“The US side should … stop arming Taiwan, and support China’s peaceful reunification,” Xi told Biden, according to China’s Foreign Ministry. “China will realise reunification, and this is unstoppable.”
Taiwan is one of China’s so-called “red lines” in discussions and it has reacted angrily to visits by US and other Western politicians, as well as to overseas engagements by Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and her deputy William Lai.
Lai is currently the frontrunner in elections due in January, and during Wednesday’s talks, Biden urged China to respect Taiwan’s electoral process.
The economy – both at home and abroad – was the other main priority for Xi, according to state media.
As they began their talks, Xi noted that a lot had happened since the two men last met 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 said.
Describing the US-China relationship as “the most important bilateral relationship in the world”, Xi said he and Biden “shoulder heavy responsibilities” and that they could not turn their backs on each other.
China’s recovery from the pandemic has been hampered by its growing debt and an ageing population, but it has also been affected by sanctions and US export controls for sensitive equipment.
“Stifling China’s technological progress is nothing but a move to contain China’s high-quality development and deprive the Chinese people of their right to development,” a readout from the Chinese side quoted Xi as saying. “China’s development and growth, driven by its own inherent logic, will not be stopped by external forces.”
The two leaders also spoke about developments in artificial intelligence (AI).
Here, the senior US official said both sides were “very much focused” on practices regarding AI that could be dangerous or destabilising, but not ready for any mutual declaration.
There was progress in efforts to tackle the production of fentanyl, the synthetic opioid that is the leading cause of drug overdoses in the US.
Xi agreed to help stem the export of chemicals related to the production of illicit fentanyl and go after specific chemical companies.
“It’s going to save lives, and I appreciated President Xi’s commitment on this issue,” Biden said at a press conference after his meeting.
Biden added he would “trust but verify” Chinese actions on the drug.
Xi and Biden touched on the ongoing war in Gaza as the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for extended humanitarian “pauses” in the besieged enclave.
More than 11,300 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli attacks on the territory since October 7 when the armed group Hamas led a surprise assault on Israel killing more than 1,200 people and taking more than 200 others captive.
Amid concerns about the potential for a regional escalation, Biden asked China to weigh in with Iran, which backs Hamas, and urge it to avoid steps that could be seen as provocative, according to the US official.