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Taiwan, Military Talks, and Pandas: Key Takeaways From the Biden-Xi Summit

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Global attention was fixated on California as President Biden and President Xi came face-to-face as they spoke about the most pressing issues which have strained their relationship for years, from Taiwan to pandas. With tensions simmering between the superpowers, the stakes were high for this momentous summit.

As Biden and Xi met, Asia collectively held its breath. The region’s future security and prosperity hangs delicately in the balance between these dueling superpowers.

For the region’s sake, these rivals must continue the difficult work of ensuring competition does not slip into outright confrontation.

So could they find some sort of common ground, or will tensions between the two powerhouse nations end up boiling over?

One year after their meeting in Bali, President Biden and President Xi Jinping came together again on Wednesday for critical talks, this time near San Francisco. They were joining other Asian heads of state convening for an annual regional summit.

Beyond just a formal sit-down meeting, the two leaders spent substantial time together. They shared a lengthy working lunch with key aides and took a walk around the lush grounds of the lavish estate hosting their gathering.

This face-to-face engagement offered important opportunities for more intimate conversation and relationship-building, in addition to tackling policy issues. The informal interactions allowed Biden and Xi to connect on a personal level, laying the groundwork for more constructive exchanges.

Biden said afterwards that the meeting included “some of the most constructive and productive discussions we’ve had.”

He added that they will “keep the lines of communication open” and Xi is “willing to pick up the phone.”

President Xi also expressed his hopes for the future of a friendly relationship between both nations.

And to be fair, the meeting did achieve some insight on key issues.

Among the things discussed was the production of fentanyl, which has been a contentious issue for quite some time now.

American officials argue China has not sufficiently curbed fentanyl trafficking, enabling the flow of the drug into the US. However, China deflects blame, claiming the origins of America’s opioid crisis lie solely within the US itself.

In the meeting, however, Xi pledged to assist efforts aimed at reducing illegal fentanyl production. Fentanyl is a major contributor to deadly drug use in America, with Biden saying the agreement is going to “save lives.” The powerful opioid played a role in around 75,000 U.S deaths last year.

According to an unnamed senior official, China’s cooperation will hinder Latin American drug traffickers who rely on Chinese-made fentanyl.

Biden and Xi also agreed to restart military-to-military communication channels that had been cut off. This means their defense heads and commanders can directly talk again.

The military ties between both countries were cut by China last year after then-U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, as well as the suspected Chinese spy balloon incident.

Biden made clear these talks should be regular contacts, not just one-time deals. He wants them to become standard practice.

Getting the militaries talking again can hopefully avoid misunderstandings as China and the US butt heads more. With all the tensions lately, keeping open lines could stop things from spinning out of control, and it’s a step toward steering through rocky waters.

Another issue the two leaders spoke about was the topic of global conflicts, and both the U.S and China’s role in that.

Seeking equal treatment from the U.S., Xi was urged by Biden to use China’s influence to ease tensions, especially regarding Iran and the Middle East war risk.

In their private meeting, Biden appealed to Xi to pressure Iran against escalating conflicts in the region. Per a U.S. official, Biden did most of the talking regarding the matter while Xi mostly listened. It’s unclear what message China is sending Tehran or how it’s received.

Biden also pressed Xi to continue withholding Chinese military support for Russia’s Ukraine invasion.

This exchange highlights Biden’s strategy of leveraging China’s desire for prestige to secure cooperation on global crises. However, major power dynamics between China and the U.S. constrain Xi’s willingness to align with Western interests fully.

Another key issue, one that could have major effects on the region, is the topic of China-Taiwan tensions.

On the super touchy Taiwan topic, Biden described their chat as “clear-headed,” as in no verbal throw-downs or temper tantrums. Biden reaffirmed America’s “One China” policy and urged a peaceful resolution. But he cautioned that he won’t budge on that stance regarding Taiwan.

At the same time, Biden made clear the US will keep arming up Taiwan against any mainland invasion. Their strategy of leaving it ambiguous whether America would directly join the fight remains unclear.

Xi claimed he’s got no plans to storm Taiwan. But Biden called him out on China’s huge military flexing around the island. He also told Xi to keep his nose out of Taiwan’s elections next year.

Reading between the lines, Biden walked a tightrope on Taiwan. He tried reassuring Xi that the US won’t outright recognize Taiwan’s independence. Yet he still signaled the US has Taiwan’s back if Xi gets grabby. Basically, Biden wanted to avoid poking the dragon too much on its touchiest subject. Who knows if Xi took the hint or just heard what he wanted to hear? But at least they talked it out without the whole thing going up in flames.

Xi came to the summit amid economic struggles back home, as an aging population and debt weigh down China’s COVID recovery.

According to China’s description of the meeting, Xi pressed Biden to lift sanctions and ease export controls on sensitive technology that Beijing sees as constraining its development. He portrayed these measures as attempts to undermine China’s progress and deprive its people.

China insists its own trajectory won’t be impeded by external forces. But Xi likely hopes even just meeting with Biden could reassure jittery investors, as foreign investment in China has slowed.

Chinese businessman Zhang Lei said top-level engagement like this summit can give companies hesitant about China confidence to invest. He argued confrontation doesn’t work economically – you make money through cooperation.

So, while Biden may not agree to Xi’s requests on sanctions and export controls, the summit itself served to demonstrate stability in relations. This was important for Xi to portray China as open for business. The visual of the leaders meeting as equals also boosted Xi domestically as he prepared to cement his rule.

However, what they did manage to agree on was the fact that pandas are a symbol of friendship and cooperation, as does most of the world.

After the summit, Xi hinted China may send more pandas to American zoos, continuing the decades-long panda diplomacy between the two countries.

Xi noted pandas have long served as envoys of friendship. But beloved pandas in Washington DC and Atlanta will soon return to China after multi-decade zoo stays, saddening many Americans, especially children.

Xi mentioned he was told many Americans grew attached to the DC pandas and were reluctant to bid them farewell. However, he signaled China is open to ongoing panda cooperation with the US, floating the idea of sending them to San Diego’s zoo next, though no timeline was given.

In referencing the cherished pandas, Xi tapped into a prominent cultural bridge between China and the US, demonstrating soft power to nurture relations. His panda diplomacy highlights how positive bilateral narratives and exchanges can develop despite geopolitical tensions.

On the topic of friendship, the meeting also had Biden reminiscing about past meetings with Xi when both were vice presidents. But this time, Xi referenced their history too, vividly recalling their interactions from 12 years ago.

While this meeting technically did not solve any differences, it served as a step towards the right direction.

The region longs for more than just crisis avoidance between its clashing titans. Lasting Asia-Pacific stability demands converting simmering rivalry into peaceful coexistence.

Time will only tell whether that will ever be the case.

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