In 1979, when Deng Xiaoping became the first leader of the People’s Republic of China to visit the United States, the occasion had the air of a courtship. At a rodeo in Texas, the former revolutionary, who stood less than five feet tall, put on a ten-gallon hat, which thrilled the crowd and gave Americans the impression that Deng, in the words of his biographer Ezra Vogel, was “less like one of ‘those Communists’ and more like ‘us.’ ” A pattern took hold: in the decades that followed, the two sides often buried disagreements—over ideology, intellectual property, human rights—beneath gestures of bonhomie, for the sake of long-range benefits.
But there was no rodeo or donning of hats last week, when China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, met with President Joe Biden, following a gruelling year of mutual criticism and mistrust since their last encounter. During that time, Xi had accused the U.S. of seeking to “contain, encircle, and suppress” his country, and Biden had called Xi a “dictator.” The world’s two largest economies are deeply intertwined, but the governments have growing disagreements over China’s claims to Taiwan and America’s efforts to restrict access to sensitive technology, and opposing positions on the wars in Europe and the Middle East. Relations sank into a chilly silence after a Chinese surveillance balloon floated into U.S. territory last winter and the Air Force shot it down.
With such high stakes, Biden invited Xi to an abbreviated summit on November 15th, coinciding with a meeting of Pacific Rim nations in San Francisco; it would be Xi’s first visit to this country in more than six years. Though Xi is politically unassailable at home—having rid himself of term limits and any visible political rivals—he had reasons to make a display of flexibility. After decades of soaring growth, China’s economy is in the doldrums; foreign companies, spooked by hostility to market reforms and the detention of prominent Chinese businesspeople, have cut direct investment to its lowest level on record; Chinese entrepreneurs and élite young graduates are emigrating. For the summit, the two leaders and their entourages retreated south of the city, to the Filoli estate, a Georgian Revival-style mansion that was a backdrop for “Dynasty,” the nineteen-eighties capitalist soap opera. (Helpfully, “Dynasty” was a big hit in China.)
Seated opposite each other, Biden and Xi began with polite, if revealing, comments. “It’s paramount that you and I understand each other clearly, leader to leader,” Biden said, “with no misconceptions or miscommunication.” The talk of “misconceptions” reflects a worry, in Washington, that Xi has surrounded himself with so many loyalists that “no one can be sure how information from the outside world is filtered before he sees it,” Victor Shih, a political economist at the University of California, San Diego, said. A prime example: Biden wanted to dispute Chinese suspicions that Americans are encouraging Taiwan to declare independence, but also to make clear his determination to defend it from attack. When he said that the leaders must insure that “competition does not veer into conflict,” Xi acknowledged that a conflict would have “unbearable consequences,” but added, “I am still of the view that major-country competition is not the prevailing trend of current times.” He conjured a different dynamic: “Planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed.”
Though it was a gentle image, it underscored Xi’s desire for the United States to just get out of the way, by reducing its role in the conflicts over Taiwan, Ukraine, the South China Sea, and the Middle East. The U.S. has no such intentions, and thus the remarks exposed the “chasm between the two leaders,” Jude Blanchette, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said. “I suspect U.S. leaders will see less and less of Xi in person, and Xi will continue to find himself frustrated with the direction of U.S. policy.”
After a working lunch, and a quick stroll for the cameras, Xi departed for a banquet at the Hyatt Regency. He was greeted by protesters and shouts of “Free Tibet!,” but, inside, a roomful of C.E.O.s and investors, still keen to profit in China, had paid as much as forty thousand dollars for a chance to sit at his table. Xi reiterated his discomfort with competition—“The No. 1 question for us is: Are we adversaries or partners?”—and suggested that new pandas might soon arrive at the San Diego Zoo. The executives gave him a standing ovation. Biden, appearing solo in a rare press conference, announced agreements to resume regular military communications and to fight the spread of fentanyl, and volunteered that deals had not been reached on other issues, including the release of Americans detained in China. But, together with a climate agreement reached in advance, to cut fossil-fuel emissions by tripling the use of renewable energy, the results proved that it is possible to find common ground. “He and I agreed that either one of us can pick up the phone, call directly, and we’d be heard immediately,” Biden said. There was, he added, value in “just talking—just being blunt with one another so there’s no misunderstanding.” (In the spirit of bluntness, when Biden was asked by a reporter if he had changed his mind about Xi being a dictator, he said no.)