President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping have agreed to resume lines of communication between their respective countries’ defence departments, more than a year after China cut off such exchanges following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August 2022 visit to Taiwan.
Mr Biden appeared for a rare solo news conference after roughly four hours of talks at the historic Bourn-Roth Estate in San Mateo, California.
“We’re reassuming military-to-military contacts, direct contacts. That’s been cut off. That’s how accidents happen, misunderstanding,” Mr Biden told reporters, standing behind a hastily set-up lectern after the question-and-answer session was moved indoors because of rain.
“We’re back to direct, open, clear, direct communications, on a direct basis,” he added.
A senior White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described the meeting between the leaders as a “constructive” one and said both Mr Biden and Mr Xi expressed a desire to keep lines of communication between the two nations open, including with dialogues at multiple levels between the US Defense Department and the People’s Liberation Army.
That will include direct talks held with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart, once that person is named by Mr Xi.
The official also said there would be “operational engagements” by “senior” commanders, including and up to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commander of US Pacific Command, who will each engage with their counterparts “ to be able to talk about military practices”.
During the press conference, Mr Biden said he warned Mr Xi not to interfere in the upcoming 2024 US presidential election. And asked whether he trusts Mr Xi, Mr Biden responded: “Trust but verify ... that’s where I am.”
“We’re in a competitive relationship, China and the United States. But my responsibility is to make this rational and manageable so it doesn’t result in conflict. That’s what I’m all about, that’s what this is about,” the president added.
The White House is also touting an agreement reached between Mr Biden and Mr Xi for China to crack down on the manufacturing of and trade in precursor chemicals used to manufacture fentanyl, the deadly narcotic that has ravaged millions of lives across the US.
A senior official told reporters that Mr Biden pressed Mr Xi on the matter, telling his Chinese counterpart that fentanyl has become “one of the worst drug problems the United States has ever faced,” and said the Chinese leader agreed to take action with a plan devised by American and Chinese negotiators.
“We worked intensively with every element of the Chinese system on a plan that has the Chinese using a number of procedures to go directly after specific companies that make precursors for fentanyl ... they’re taking a number of steps that are designed to dramatically curtail those supplies,” the official said.
“This will set them back for a time and obviously we’re going to want to see whether China continues to follow up. In many respects, the proof is in the pudding here and these are important steps and we think they’re important and the president thought this is the important central thing we can do in US- China relations for the American people,” they continued, adding later that the deal includes “substantial set of steps that the Chinese have agreed to undertake with trying to address fentanyl”.
The Chinese leader also told Mr Biden that his country doesn’t have immediate plans of military action against Taiwan in the coming years, the US official said.
According to the official, Mr Xi told the president that he hoped China could peacefully reunify with Taiwan, while outlining conditions where force might be used and arguing that the fate of the island was the biggest threat to US-China relations.
The same official said Mr Biden responded by telling Mr Xi that the US was committed to maintaining peace and stability in the region, which the president argued would be achieved by maintaining the status quo and having China respect Taiwan’s elections.
Mr Xi had arrived at the mansion, which is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, at 11.17 am local time after arriving in the US on Tuesday. Both he and Mr Biden are in California for this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ summit, which the US is hosting in San Francisco.
After travelling to the venue via a police-escorted motorcade, the Chinese leader emerged from his armoured limousine and was greeted by Mr Biden, who smiled and shook hands with him before the two men entered the mansion to begin their talks.
As the meeting began, Mr Biden told Mr Xi, “We’ve known each other for a long time. We haven’t always agreed ... but our meetings have always been candid, straightforward”.
He added that it’s “paramount that we understand each other truly, leader to leader”.
“Planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed,” Mr Xi told the US delegation, which included 10 people in addition to the president, who was flanked by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.
Also in attendance at the long table were National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Climate Envoy John Kerry, and Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo.
“As long as they respect each other, coexist in peace … they will be fully capable of rising above differences,” Mr Xi said.
“You and I are at the helm of China-US relations … I look forward to having an in-depth exchange,” he told Mr Biden.
The meeting between the American and Chinese heads of state was the seventh interaction they have had since Mr Biden became the 46th US president in January 2021, but just their second in-person meeting.
They previously met virtually on two occasions, in November 2021 and May 2022.
The agreements on fentanyl precursors and resuming military-to-military ties represent significant wins for Mr Biden, who had previously singled out the resumption of communications as a singular goal for his sit-down when he spoke to reporters on Tuesday, just hours before he departed Washington for San Francisco.
Asked about what he’d consider “success” coming out of Wednesday’s meeting with Mr Xi, Mr Biden replied: “To get back on a normal course of corresponding: being able to pick up the phone and talk to one another when there’s a crisis, being able to make sure our militaries still have contact with one another”.
The meeting, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ summit, capped months of careful diplomatic efforts by a range of top administration officials to lay the groundwork for the restoration of head-of-state level talks after a breakdown in relations brought on by the February shootdown of a Chinese-owned espionage airship off the East Coast of the US.
It also follows a provocative move by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last year.
In response, Beijing conducted a series of military exercises nearby, including live-fire drills in Taiwan’s territorial waters and air-defence identification zone.
The Chinese government also lashed out at the US with a decision to suspend bilateral talks on fighting climate change, and by cutting off all dialogues between the US Department of Defence and the People’s Liberation Army, including bilateral talks between area commanders and between top US and Chinese defence officials, as well as regular communications on military and maritime safety, returning illegal immigrants, criminal investigations, transnational crime and illegal drugs.