haass161_Li XuerenXinhua via Getty Images_bidenxi Li Xueren/Xinhua via Getty Images

Summing Up the Biden-Xi Summit

The meeting between the US and Chinese presidents in San Francisco confirmed that the world’s most important bilateral relationship continues to be a highly competitive one. The challenge remains what it was prior to their talks: to ensure that competition does not preclude selective cooperation or give way to conflict.

NEW YORK – Summits are by definition occasions of high politics and drama, so it comes as little surprise that the November 15 meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping generated immense global interest. It was a useful meeting: Biden and Xi agreed to restart military-to-military communications, curb the deadly opioid fentanyl, fight climate change, and discuss risks associated with artificial intelligence. But it was also something less than a reset of a relationship that has been deteriorating for several years and that will remain typified by competition more than anything else for the foreseeable future.

Both leaders came to San Francisco hoping the four-hour meeting (held alongside the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum) would place a floor (to use Biden’s favorite image) under what is the defining bilateral relationship of this era. But it is worth noting that their motives differed fundamentally. Biden wanted to reduce tensions, as the last thing he needs is another diplomatic or, worse, military crisis at a time when an over-stretched United States is contending with Russian aggression against Ukraine in Europe and the after-effects of Hamas’s October 7 terrorist attack in Israel.

Biden, a year away from the 2024 presidential election, also needed to show he could be tough on China, both to parry Republican attacks and to show that he was focused on issues that are touching American lives. In this regard, he successfully pushed China to pledge to do more to rein in its exports of the chemical precursors that cartels in Mexico use to manufacture fentanyl.