Biden announces progress on counternarcotics, military communication after Xi meeting

President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping have completed their talks Wednesday on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation gathering in San Francisco, as Mr. Biden looks to manage the relationship between the world’s two largest economies. The president announced they made progress on two key objectives — resuming military-to-military communications and cracking down on fentanyl.

The two world leaders, accompanied by top aides, met for about four hours at the Filoli Historic House & Garden in Woodside, California, just outside of San Francisco. 

“Today, built on the groundwork relayed over the past several months of high-level diplomacy between our teams, we’ve made some important progress, I believe,” Mr. Biden said in a press conference after the talks. “First, I’m pleased to announce that after many years of being on hold, we are restarting cooperation between the United States and PRC [People’s Republic of China] on counternarcotics. … Secondly, and this is critically important, we’re reassuming military-to-military contact, direct contacts.”

A senior administration official told reporters Wednesday after the talks that the U.S. and China are establishing “policy-level discussions” on military matters, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will now meet with his counterpart when China names a new minister of defense. Senior military commanders, including the commander of the U.S. Pacific forces in Hawaii, will engage with his Chinese counterparts, the official said. 

The senior administration official also said the U.S. is working with the Chinese on a plan to have China use a number of procedures to go after specific companies that make precursors for fentanyl. The official said the Chinese have already acted against several of the companies for which the U.S. has provided information. China is taking a number of steps intended to curtail the supplies, the official said. 

Mr. Biden and Xi also had what the senior administration official described as a substantial exchange about Taiwan. Xi, the U.S. official said, expressed that China’s preferences is for peaceful reunification, but moved immediately to suggest that  force could potentially be used. Mr. Biden emphasized the need to maintain peace and stability, and asked the Chinese to respect the electoral process in Taiwan. Xi, the official said, suggested peace is well and good but at some point, there needs to be a move toward a resolution. 

At the top of their conversation, Mr. Biden said there is no substitute for face-to-face discussions, and it’s important to ensure that “competition doesn’t veer into conflict.” 

“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,” Mr. Biden said. 

Through an interpreter, Xi called the China-U.S. relationship the most important bilateral relationship in the world, and said “turning our backs on each other is not an option.”

Although Mr. Biden and Xi went for a brief walk, they otherwise didn’t meet one-on-one. Each leader had about a dozen top aides in the grand room. 

President Joe Biden Meets with China’s President President Xi Jinping at the Filoli Estate in Woodside, Calif., Wednesday, Nov, 15, 2023, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperative conference. (Doug Mills/The New York Times via AP, Pool)

Doug Mills / AP

It’s Mr. Biden’s second in-person meeting with Xi since he took office, although the two have also spoken virtually and Mr. Biden met with Xi many times before taking office. This is the first time they have spoken since their last meeting, which was in Nov. 2022 in Bali, Indonesia, a senior administration said Tuesday night. 

Military communications were suspended after former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan last year. Diplomatic lines of communication have continued. 

President Joe Biden greets China’s President President Xi Jinping at the Filoli Estate in Woodside, Calif., Wednesday, Nov, 15, 2023, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperative conference. (Doug Mills/The New York Times via AP, Pool)

Doug Mills / AP

“To get back on a normal course of corresponding, being able to pick up the phone and talk to one another if there’s a crisis,” Mr. Biden said Tuesday, asked what he would consider the outcome of a successful meeting with Xi. “Being able to make sure our militaries still have contact with one another.”

A senior administration official noted early Wednesday that when the Chinese spy balloon went across the U.S., “we had no way really to communicate with the Chinese. That’s not responsible and we hope to be able to at least take some preliminary steps tomorrow.”   

The senior administration official said “over the past several years there has been a “collection of power by one man – President Xi.” The official added “frankly, if you really have to do serious diplomacy, that has to take place at the very top so the stakes really just couldn’t be higher. And yes, I think if you want to affect change in the Chinese system, if you want to have a clear shot at trying to affect certain outcomes, it comes down to a meeting like this.” 

In any meeting at the leader level, particularly between countries like the U.S. and China, there are “weeks and weeks” of discussion about the agenda, said National Security Council spokesman John Kirby. Kirby said Mr. Biden and Xi have known each other for years, and can be “frank and forthright” with each other.

“I think the table’s been set, again, over the course of many weeks, for what we hope will be a very productive, candid, constructive conversation here,” Kirby said. “… He’s not gonna’ be afraid to confront where confrontation is needed on certain issues where we don’t see eye to eye with President Xi and the PRC, but we’re also not gonna’ be afraid nor should we be afraid as a confident nation to engage in diplomacy on ways which we can cooperate with China.”

Broadly, the White House says the administration’s goals at the APEC summit are improving and increasing American investment in the Asia-Pacific region and the region’s investment in the U.S.; working toward better worker standards and cleaner environments; and building a more inclusive economy across the region. 

“We’re not trying to decouple from China,” Mr. Biden told reporters Tuesday. “What we’re trying to do is change the relationship for the better. From my perspective, if in fact the Chinese people, who are in trouble right now, economically … if the average citizen in China was able to have a decent paying job, that benefits them and it benefits all of us. But I’m not gonna’ continue to sustain the support for positions where if you want to invest in China, we have to turn over all our trade secrets.”

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