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Biden and Xi Pick the Low-Hanging Fruit

US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s San Francisco summit was a significant improvement on last year’s meeting in Bali. In particular, the two leaders made progress on achievable objectives, including the resumption of military-to-military communications and joint efforts to address the fentanyl crisis.

NEW HAVEN – “A Better Biden-Xi Summit?” was the title of my commentary last month, and the emphasis was on the question mark. With good reason: Last year’s summit in Bali was a flop. Owing to poor preparation and an overemphasis on slogans (setting a “floor” for the troubled US-China relationship), any effort to ease tensions was quickly scuttled by the US downing of a Chinese surveillance balloon in February. There were no guarantees that the meeting in San Francisco would be any better.

The good news is that the San Francisco summit was indeed an improvement on last year’s meeting. Above all, both sides took the preparations far more seriously this time. It wasn’t just the high-level diplomatic engagement that resumed in the summer, with visits to Beijing by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, and climate envoy John Kerry. Equally important was identifying in advance the key issues on which the two leaders could cooperate and eventually agree.

I wrote my last commentary in part to offer a framework by which the San Francisco summit could be assessed. My tentative day-after verdict is based on a careful comparison of the official readouts from both sides, US President Joe Biden’s post-summit press conference, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech to a group of US business leaders at a dinner in San Francisco, and the in-depth reporting of major media outlets.