In Talks With Biden, Xi Seeks to Assure and Assert at the Same Time

Meeting with President Biden for the first time in a year, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, reiterated his determination to unify with Taiwan, but stopped short of mentioning the potential use of force. He denounced what he called futile American efforts at containing China, but also acknowledged that U.S. tech restrictions had taken a toll.

And he broadcast that China had global ambitions for its influence — while also trying to reassure the world that those ambitions did not have to lead to conflict with the United States.

Mr. Xi’s message at the leaders’ summit in San Francisco, as depicted by official Chinese summaries, reflected his dual, at times contradictory, priorities during his trip to the United States, which many had hoped would help inject stability into the volatile bilateral relationship.

Mr. Xi wants to convince Washington, and the world, that he is willing to engage with the United States, in part to lure back foreign investment to bolster China’s ailing economy. But he also wants to demonstrate to the Chinese people that he strongly defended Beijing’s interests, and burnished its image as a world power on a par with the United States, not a secondary one making concessions.

To strike that balance, Mr. Xi sought to cast himself as one of two men who would determine whether the United States and China chose cooperation or conflict, a choice that would “decide the future of humanity.”

That framing was in line with Mr. Xi’s assertive vision of how the United States must accept China as an equal, said Fei-Ling Wang, a professor of international affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“You’re either with us, listen to me and work our way, or it’s going to be a disaster,” Professor Wang said, describing Mr. Xi’s message. “We can divide the Earth, so to speak.”

Mr. Xi speaking at a dinner on Wednesday with business leaders during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in San Francisco.Credit…Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Indeed, perhaps the most striking signal of how Mr. Xi sought to project his growing ambitions for China, without directly rankling the United States, came in his statement that “the Earth is big enough to accommodate both countries.” In previous meetings with former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump, Mr. Xi had told them that the Pacific Ocean was big enough to accommodate both countries.

“It is an indication that Xi now sees China as a global, rather than a regional, power,” Cheng Chen, a professor of political science at the University at Albany, in New York, said. “This is in line with Xi’s strident foreign policy in recent years.”

In framing the relationship in such terms, Mr. Xi is also casting himself as a responsible global leader looking out for the interests of all nations.

That mirrors China’s bid to appeal to the developing world as a means to push back against U.S. dominance and reshape the global order to better suit China’s interests. Beijing has taken a more active role in the Middle East, bolstering ties with Arab states by expressing support for the Palestinians in Israel’s war with Hamas. But at the same time, China has been accused by its neighbors of bullying. Chinese soldiers have clashed with Indian troops over a border dispute. Chinese ships have fired water cannons and harassed Philippine boats around the South China Sea.

A Chinese coast guard vessel confronting a Philippine Coast Guard vessel that was on a resupply mission to its outpost in the Spratlys, in the South China Sea, this month.Credit…Jes Aznar for The New York Times

“Xi animated U.S.-China relations beyond the two countries, giving it a global perspective,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center in Washington. “He’s grandstanding and trying to take a higher approach by saying, ‘It’s not just about you and me, it’s about the whole world, so why can’t you step out of your myopic, competition-centric framing of this?’”

Chinese state media leaned into the depiction of Mr. Xi as a peer to Mr. Biden, showing footage of the two smiling and walking shoulder-to-shoulder on the grounds of the country estate near San Francisco where they met. It highlighted Mr. Biden’s appearing impressed after inspecting Mr. Xi’s Chinese-made Hongqi luxury car, and then waiting patiently in the driveway as the Chinese leader was chauffeured away. (CCTV, the state broadcaster, started a hashtag on the social media platform Weibo: “Biden points to Hongqi car and says ‘Beautiful’.”)

Other footage showed a dinner for business executives held in Mr. Xi’s honor, where luminaries like Tim Cook and Elon Musk could be seen among the throngs of guests arriving to hear the Chinese leader deliver a speech.

Anything that might challenge the narrative of a warm welcome for Mr. Xi was omitted. State media outlets highlighted the crowds of supporters who gathered to wave Chinese flags, while, unsurprisingly, making no mention of protests by groups representing Tibet, Hong Kong and the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang. Mr. Biden’s off-the-cuff comment, in a response to a reporter’s question later, that he still regarded Mr. Xi as a dictator, was similarly left out. (Though a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, when asked about it by a reporter, called Mr. Biden’s remark “extremely wrong.”)

The summit caps a tumultuous year in U.S.-China relations, which reached a low point in February after an errant Chinese surveillance balloon was discovered drifting over the United States. American businesses have grown increasingly leery of investing in China, after a series of raids and new restrictions on foreign companies in the name of national security. Ties have also been aggravated by China’s tacit support for Russia’s war in Ukraine, increased Chinese military activity around Taiwan and dangerous Chinese fighter jet intercepts over the Western Pacific, to name a few.

The two sides have spent the past few months sending more senior officials to each other’s countries for talks in the hope of arresting the downward spiral. Though the summit resulted in agreements to curb fentanyl production and restarting military-to-military communications, sizable differences remained between the two sides on issues as fundamental as how to define their relationship.

Nancy Pelosi, then the U.S. House speaker, during a visit to Taiwan in 2022. Credit…Taiwan Presidential office, via EPA, via Shutterstock

Washington sees ties with Beijing as a form of “managed competition” that allows the two countries to challenge each other on some issues like technology but also cooperate on shared interests like climate change. China has rejected that framing, indicating that competition only sows mistrust. It has been deeply frustrated by the United States’s efforts to rally allies and other countries in Asia to counter China’s influence.

“The number one question for us is: Are we adversaries, or partners?” Mr. Xi said at a banquet with business leaders in the evening. He added, “If one sees the other side as a primary competitor, the most consequential geopolitical challenge and a pacing threat, it will only lead to misinformed policymaking, misguided actions, and unwanted results.”

No issue threatens the relationship more than the future of Taiwan, the democratic island that China claims as its territory. Mr. Xi urged Mr. Biden to take “concrete actions” to reassure China that it still stands by its stated policy of not supporting Taiwanese independence, including by stopping the sale of arms to Taiwan.

Mr. Xi’s language was less bellicose than China’s usual statements on Taiwan, said Amanda Hsiao, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group. “The language sounds more businesslike,” she said.

A screen in Beijing showing news coverage of Mr. Xi’s arrival at San Francisco International Airport ahead of the APEC conference.Credit…Pedro Pardo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Pro-Tibet demonstrators confronted supporters of Mr. Xi during rallies in San Francisco on Wednesday.Credit…Frederic J. Brown/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Xi also struck a softer tone than usual at the banquet dinner with American business leaders, highlighting the ways China and the United States could overcome their differences. Mr. Xi spoke about the American pilots known as the Flying Tigers who aided China during World War II against Japan. He hinted at the prospect of China’s sending new pandas to the United States. And he reminisced about the time he lived with an American family in Iowa in 1985 as part of an agricultural exchange.

“As assertive a great leader as he is,” Professor Wang said of Mr. Xi’s projected image, “he has to worry about where his money is going to come from.”

The conference in California was the first time in a year that Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi had met.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Olivia Wang and Joy Dong contributed reporting.

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