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Inside Biden’s high-stakes meeting with Xi Jinping — 7 need-to-know facts

Published in Blog on November 15, 2023 by Jakob Fay

“Here they come,” the president whispered.

He proceeded to laugh at himself, grimace, and joust his arms in the air as if boxing. The confused expressions on Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s and Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen’s faces tell it all – no one knew what the president was doing. Yellen smiled at him patronizingly.

Joe Biden was seated directly across from President Xi Jinping of China, arguably America’s most formidable rival. After several months of deteriorating relations between the two superpowers, their objective, if not stated so bluntly, was simply to avert the escalation of tension into open conflict. San Francisco, California, would play host city to their summit on Wednesday, the two leaders’ first face-to-face meeting in over a year.

“Planet Earth is big enough” for both of us to succeed, Xi assured Biden. But behind the niceties lurked a far more sinister reality – a tale of two embittered countries vying for the top place on the global food chain.

Here are 7 must-know facts about this high-stakes meeting.

1. It had to be perfect

The U.S. was under immense pressure to ensure that every detail of Xi’s trip – from where he would sit to the view outside his window – was up to the Chinese government’s exacting standards. Even the flowers at the venue did not escape careful scrutiny.

“Highly attuned to etiquette and symbolism, Chinese officials have sought to ensure each element of Xi’s visit to California conveys the highest levels of respect – down to efforts to prevent (or at least obscure) protests of the communist leader,” CNN reported.

2. The summit was hosted at an estate with ties to Hollywood

Filoli Estate, a 54,256-square-foot, 56-room house located on the slopes of California's coastal range, is conveniently tucked away from any would-be disruptors (human rights groups were expected to protest Xi’s visit, and the U.S. was bid by Chinese officials to shield their president at all costs). According to the New York Times, the house appeared in the 1980s television series “Dynasty” and the 2001 romantic comedy “The Wedding Planner.”

The mansion’s website informed guests that the home would be closed over the dates of Xi’s visit so that the custodians could “deck the halls for the Holidays!” Maybe so. But it seems they had more important tasks at hand than decorating for Christmas.

3. Biden and Xi go way back

The U.S. and China haven’t agreed on much of anything lately, and heading into Wednesday's meeting, the stakes were incredibly high. But not even that could stop the two leaders from trading stories on a brief, chummy trip down memory lane.

“Well, Mr. President,” Biden began. “It’s good to see you again. We’ve spent many hours together over the last 10 or 12 years…. We’ve known each other for a long time. We haven’t always agreed, which would not surprise anyone, but our meetings have always been candid, straightforward, and useful.”

President Xi shared similar sentiments: “Coming here, I think of your trip to China when I was the vice president to China. We had a meeting. It was 12 years ago. I still remember our interactions very vividly, and it always gives me a lot of thoughts.” 

In 2011, The New York Times reported that the two men, who were then both vice presidents, met in China to discuss “the need for economic cooperation.” It was Biden’s first trip to China since taking office under Barack Obama.

4. Heading into the meeting, U.S.-Chinese relations were rapidly worsening

Our relationship with the Chinese Communist Party has never been particularly great. But between this year’s spy balloon incident, mounting tension over Taiwan, and China’s growing interest in globalization, things have never been quite this bad. 

As far as Xi is concerned, China is poised for international dominance, but the U.S.-led world order stands in the way. Even as Beijing ramps up pressure on the small, independent island country of Taiwan, Washington’s counter, containment efforts (including arming Taiwan and providing nuclear submarines to Australia through AUKUS, the U.S.-U.K.-Australian security alliance) have put China on edge.

“Beyond doubt, our country’s growing strength is the most important factor driving a profound readjustment of the international order,” Xi told military leaders after visiting America in 2015. “Some Western countries absolutely never want to see a socialist China grow strong under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.”

5. If Africa is up for bids, China is winning

In its behind-the-scenes race for global dominance, China is openly schmoozing Africa with prodigious trade deals that leave the U.S. in the dust. For example, the U.N. Comtrade Database reveals that since 2011, America has traded roughly $5.5 billion annually with South Africa. In our highest year, 2012, we traded $7,552,736,463. China, on the other hand, traded nearly $25 billion in 2022 alone and has never dipped under $12 billion. Similarly, in India, Chinese trade skyrocketed from $50,536,415,932 in 2011 to $118,501,522,799 in 2022. Comparatively, American trade stood at $21 billion in 2011 and less than $50 billion eleven years later.

While this may seem irrelevant to this week’s summit, it appears U.S. officials have finally acknowledged China’s designs in Africa and are quietly scrambling to catch up. This new, pseudo “cold war” has often seen countries align either with the U.S.- or Chinese-led orders based not on ideology but rather on which side would be more financially profitable. If this is the case, the U.S. is far behind in places like Africa, which may be why multiple top government officials, including Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary Yellen, have visited African countries this year and why we hosted the first U.S.-Africa trade summit in eight years.

“The United States’ strategy towards Africa is centered around a simple recognition that Africa will shape the future of the global economy,” confessed Yellen.

6. Fentanyl was a major topic of concern

Perhaps fittingly in a city rocked by a severe opioid crisis, where hundreds have overdosed just this year, fentanyl was a top priority at the summit. According to the White House, Biden and Xi “welcomed the resumption of bilateral cooperation to combat global illicit drug manufacturing and trafficking, including synthetic drugs like fentanyl, and establishment of a working group for ongoing communication and law enforcement coordination on counternarcotics issues.”

Multiple sources reported prior to the event that the two countries were on the cusp of agreeing to a not-yet-finalized deal to crack down on illicit fentanyl, as China is a major producer. America’s ongoing fentanyl crisis has been a major pain point for the Biden administration, with nearly 90% of voters concerned about the drugs crossing our border, and Biden’s response ranked poorly.

7. Key figures were spotted grabbing a bite to eat at one of the West Coast’s most iconic restaurants

No trip to America’s West Coast is complete without a stop at In-N-Out, California’s signature hamburger chain. With locations in only a handful of states and none further east than Texas, the restaurant is a popular destination for California tourists — even important government officials. So coveted is an In-N-Out meal that not even a meeting with China’s president could prevent Secretary Janet Yellen from stopping for a bite, according to SFGATE. Reportedly, she ordered a cheeseburger with onions, fries, and a Diet Coke.

What’s Next?

While Americans remain hopeful that Wednesday's summit may help de-escalate conflict, polling indicates a flagging faith in Biden’s ability to contain China.

“Americans are rightly concerned about China’s aggressive actions towards the U.S. and want to see leadership from President Biden,” said Mark Meckler, President of Convention of States, earlier this year. “We must have a president that puts our nation’s safety and best interests first.”

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