Wednesday’s Biden–Xi meeting at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco carried an agenda as massive as the stakes. Presidents Biden and Xi reached important agreements, notably restoring high-level military-to-military communications. This four-hour meeting was not just another diplomatic rendezvous; it was a critical juncture to mend a bilateral relationship that has frayed to its thinnest in decades.
Biden and Xi’s last meeting, on the sidelines of last year’s G20 Summit in November 2022, was soon overshadowed by a Chinese spy balloon that quelled any potential for further rapprochement. Now, having engaged in Wednesday’s pivotal talks amid a complex tapestry of global issues, it is essential for the US and China to avoid any ‘balloon-sized’ disruptions to forge meaningful progress going forward.
A long list of contentious issues
The Biden–Xi meeting confronted a long list of contentious issues to address: trade, technology, and territorial disputes were at the forefront. The spotlight focused on restoring high-level military-to-military communications which had been suspended following former US House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022.
The agreement to reopen these vital channels marks a pivotal step in mitigating the risks of miscommunication and potential escalations. President Biden said that the two nations were ‘back to direct, open, clear…communication’.
This is important given the highly competitive backdrop against which this meeting unfolded, notably the Biden administration’s recent steps to block the export of advanced chip technologies to China amid escalating trade tensions and a rapidly expanding Chinese nuclear arsenal.
Furthermore, in recent months the US has ramped up its support for Taiwan’s defences and despite what was termed as a ‘substantial exchange’ on Taiwan, President Biden has so far stopped short of revealing whether Xi provided any clarity on the conditions that might lead China to invade Taiwan – more information is likely to emerge in the next few days.
Despite progress on military-to-military communications, AI, commercial flights, and fentanyl regulation (with China agreeing to regulate certain components of the drug), questions loomed on major international issues, from the conflict in Ukraine to the Israel–Hamas war, where the US and China find themselves diametrically opposed.
Unsurprisingly, no concrete agreement has yet emerged on these points. But the mere act of engaging in dialogue over these thorny issues is valuable – it keeps the conversation going between the US and China, fostering an environment conducive to trust-building and laying the groundwork for potential future convergence. In this complex geostrategic relationship, discussions aim more to sidestep conflict than to build cooperation. From this perspective, any dialogue is beneficial.
Amid the broader narrative of the Biden–Xi meeting, progress was also made on the periphery. Earlier in the week, an important precursor set the stage: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken mentioned shared interests in regulating the integration of artificial intelligence in nuclear command and control systems.
Despite no concrete agreement during the meeting, Biden’s aides have indicated that these dialogues are set to continue, and China’s official state news agency Xinhua reported that both leaders agreed to establish a dialogue on AI – which is in keeping with China’s participation in the UK AI Safety Summit in early November. These discussions, unfolding amid an emergence of working-level talks on nuclear arms control, play a crucial role in the incremental building of trust and advancing mutual understanding.
Shared desire to avert conflict
The conclusion of the Biden–Xi meeting demonstrates the profound value of affirming mutual respect and the shared desire to avert conflict, even amid frank political discourse.