November 17, 2023
BEIJING – As Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived at the lush Filoli estate outside San Francisco on Wednesday, United States President Joe Biden, who was waiting to greet him, pulled out an iPhone to show the Chinese leader a picture of a man posing in front of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.
“I know,” Mr Xi said with a smile. “It’s me 38 years ago.”
“You haven’t changed a bit,” Mr Biden quipped, to laughter from the gathered crowd of staff and fellow officials.
Later, while walking Mr Xi to his Chinese-made Hongqi limousine after the meeting, Mr Biden remarked that it was a “beautiful vehicle”, much like the American presidential “Beast”.
Breaking into a smile, Mr Xi chuckled as he asked an aide to show Mr Biden the car’s interior.
These vignettes were among many touches of personal diplomacy on display during Wednesday’s highly anticipated meeting between the two leaders.
Associate Professor Alfred Wu from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy said Mr Xi was “trying to make himself more personable for the domestic audience, to show that he can hold his own against the leader of the US”.
“But whether he can convince the American public that China isn’t a threat, that is another thing altogether,” he added.
The special summit on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Economic Leaders’ Meeting comes amid a recent thaw in bilateral relations.
Ties had hit a nadir earlier in 2023 after the US shot down a Chinese weather balloon it said was used for spying, and Washington enacted a raft of restrictions and sanctions on Chinese companies, preventing their access to cutting-edge chip technology, citing national security concerns.
Wednesday’s four hours of face time between leaders of the world’s two largest economies have thus been aimed at putting a floor under the relationship and setting the stage for cooperation despite their underlying differences on a range of issues.
During the official meeting, Mr Biden even relayed wishes for a “Happy Birthday” to Mr Xi’s wife Peng Liyuan – to which Mr Xi responded that he was so busy he had forgotten.
After a lunch of ricotta ravioli with artichoke chips, tarragon roasted chicken and a dessert of almond meringue cake, both men were seen chatting casually during a walk on the grounds of Filoli.
Among the key outcomes of the leaders’ summit were a resumption of military-to-military cooperation and the creation of a task force to curb the production of fentanyl, an opioid that is a leading cause of drug overdoses in the US.
Asked at a press conference after the summit if he trusted Mr Xi, Mr Biden said that through his 68 hours of face-to-face discussions with Mr Xi during the Obama administration when Mr Biden was vice-president, he knew Mr Xi and his modus operandi.
“We have disagreements – he has a different view than I have on a lot of things – but he’s been straight,” he said, adding that both of them had pledged to pick up the phone should the other call.
This pledge, said Ms Rorry Daniels, managing director of the New York-headquartered Asia Society Policy Institute, is a personal guarantee that “supports smoothing out the inevitable bumps that will occur as the working levels meet”.
Mr Manoj Kewalramani, a China studies fellow at the Indian public policy education centre Takshashila Institution, said such diplomatic niceties are, at best, a signal that there is desire to work together for the moment.
“Both are fairly well known to each other from the time they were vice-presidents. Also, let’s remember that Mr Xi and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had many informal strolls and chats in 2018 and 2019. It did not alter the direction of ties,” he told The Straits Times, referring to ongoing strained relations between India and China.
A clear difference remains in both sides’ view of the nature of the relationship, said Mr Manoj in a daily newsletter on Chinese news that he runs.
He noted that Mr Biden was unequivocal that the US and China are in competition. But Mr 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”.
Mr Stephen Olson, a senior research fellow at the Hinrich Foundation, an Asian-based philanthropic organisation, said both countries hope that the more cooperative aspects of their relationship can be emphasised, but recognise that fundamental points of conflict exist and will not disappear overnight.
“President Xi has repeatedly expressed the opinion that the US is attempting to suppress China. It’s unlikely that his perspective has dramatically shifted,” he said.
The meeting has given both sides more clarity on each other’s red lines, which portends a less antagonistic and hostile relationship, said Assistant Professor Dylan Loh from the Public Policy and Global Affairs Division at Nanyang Technological University.
And it appears that Beijing, too, is looking to tone down the anti-US rhetoric.
Speaking to journalists after the summit, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi said there are hopes that the two countries can be partners instead of adversaries and cooperate on areas of mutual interest.
“In this way, the future of China-US relations will be bright,” he said.
This was reiterated by Mr Xi during a speech to business elites at a gala event later that evening. In an unusually candid moment, he reflected on the time he spent in the US nearly four decades ago, when he stayed with a family in Iowa.
“This was my first face-to-face encounter with the American people, and it was an unforgettable experience,” he said, adding that even though both countries may have different histories, culture and social values, at the core, both its peoples are kind, friendly, hard-working and pragmatic.
He added: “No matter how the (global) situation changes, the historical logic of peaceful coexistence between China and the US will not change, the fundamental desire of the two peoples for exchanges and cooperation will not change, and the general expectations of people around the world for the stable development of Sino-US relations will not change.”