Joe Biden has claimed that his summit meeting with Xi Jinping has brought substantial progress, including agreements on limiting narcotics trafficking, restoring militaries lines of communication, and to start talking about the global risks posed by artificial intelligence.
However, it was clear that after more than four hours of talks in a mansion outside San Francisco, the meeting had not brought the US and China any closer on the fate of Taiwan, which Xi reportedly told Biden was “the biggest, most potentially dangerous issue in US-China relations”.
Furthermore, Biden himself risked undoing some of the bridge-building at the summit, the first between the two leaders for a year, with an off-the-cuff response to a reporter’s question at the tail-end of a press conference, in which he confirmed he still looked on Xi as a dictator.
“Look, he is,” the president said. “He’s a dictator in the sense that he’s a guy who runs a country that is a communist country that’s based on a form of government totally different than ours.”
Related: ‘Planet Earth is big enough for two’: Biden and Xi meet for first time in a year
The account of the summit from China’s foreign ministry was also mixed, portraying Xi has having taken a tough line, over Taiwan in particular.
“The US side should … stop arming Taiwan, and support China’s peaceful reunification,” Xi told Biden, according to Beijing’s account. “China will realise reunification, and this is unstoppable.”
Apart from his impromptu dictator comment, Biden had been mostly upbeat about the meeting, pointing out the two leaders had known each other a long time but this meeting was “among the most constructive and productive we’ve had”.
“We’ve made some important progress I believe,” Biden said, pointing to a Chinese agreement to curb trafficking in the precursors and production equipment used in the production of the drug fentanyl, which has become the biggest killer of Americans between the ages of 18 and 49.
Biden said the restoration of military-to-military contacts was “critically important” in reducing accidents and dangerous miscalculation. And he said the start of talks about AI and security represented “tangible steps in the right direction to determine … what’s dangerous and what’s acceptable”.
A senior US official said that, compared to the last meeting between the two leaders, in Bali, a year and a day earlier, in the immediate aftermath of the Covid pandemic: “This was much more back and forth, give and take. They sat across from each other, only six or seven feet, they could reach across the table. You could see the look on the other person’s face.”
“President Biden did not pull punches,” the official added. “He was respectful but very clear.”
Before the talks, Xi had said: “Planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed.”
According to the Chinese foreign ministry account, Xi made clear to Biden that Beijing was unhappy about US sanctions in the hi-tech sector.
“US actions against China regarding export control, investment screening and unilateral sanctions seriously hurt China’s legitimate interests,” Xi reportedly said. “Suppressing China’s science and technology is curbing China’s high-quality development and depriving the Chinese people of their right to development.”
According to a senior US administration official, however: “President Xi made very clear in his discussions that he certainly at this time wants to stabilise the relationship with the United States.
“He also revealed quite clearly a deep knowledge of some of the debates about China in the United States and I think in some respects, he’s quite sensitive to some of those discussions,” the official said
At one point in the talks, Biden and Xi took a walk together in the grounds of the Filoli estate, 50km south of San Francisco, and there was at least one moment of humour. Biden wished Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan, a happy birthday because they share the same birthday date, 20 November. Xi admitted to being embarrassed as he had been working so hard he had forgotten his wife’s birthday was in the coming week, and he thanked Biden for reminding him.
Biden said after the summit he realised that the two countries were in a competitive relationship but he was committed to managing the competition responsibly “so it doesn’t veer into conflict”, and to finding agreement where their interests coincide, as in the case of fentanyl.
The flow of processed fentanyl from China to the west had been curbed some years ago, but the traffic in the raw materials for making the drug had continued, Biden said.
“Today with this new understanding, we’re taking action to significantly reduce the flow of precursor chemicals and pill presses from China to the western hemisphere,” Biden said. “It’s going to save lives and I appreciate President Xi’s commitment on this issue.”
On the restoration of military contacts, Biden said: “We’re back to direct, open, clear communications.”
After a complete absence of such contacts for several years, a senior US official said that the Chinese governments had agreed on Wednesday to three levels of communications.
Within the next “several weeks” the US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, would meet his Chinese counterpart, once the new Chinese defence chief had been appointed. Senior military commanders would engage on operational matters and questions military practice, and there would be operational engagement on a lower level between ship’s captains and other officers.
On the coming discussions on AI, the US official admitted the talks were about “early stages mechanisms” and were far short of any kind of joint declarations. “This is a process that’s going to require more serious interactions,” the official said.
Biden admitted he had reached no agreement with the Chinese president about the fate of US nationals detained or facing exit bans by China. And it was also clear there was no progress on Taiwan, after what US officials described as a “substantial exchange” about the island.
“I think President Xi made clear the continuing concerns, underscored that this was the biggest, most potentially dangerous issue in US-China relations,” the senior American official said. Xi reportedly insisted that Beijing’s preference was for peaceful reunification, “but then moved immediately to conditions that the potential use of force could be utilised”.
“I think President Biden responded very clearly that the longstanding position of the United States was a determination to maintain peace and stability, that we believed in the status quo, and that we asked the Chinese to respect the electoral process in Taiwan,” the official said. According to the US version, Xi responded by saying: “Look, peace is all well and good, but at some point we need to move towards resolution more generally.”
Xi said he had seen reports and assessments in the US that China was planning to take military action by a given year, and expressed “exasperation” at such reports, insisting that there were no such plans and that no one in the Chinese system had talked to him about them.