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Did The Biden-Xi Meeting Move The Needle Or Maintain The Status Quo?

To hear President Joe Biden tell it, his four-hour meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping — their first face-to-face conversation in nearly a year — was the “most constructive and productive” sit down between the pair since they each assumed their respective offices. That enthusiasm, cautious as it may have been, was tempered a few moments later with Biden’s subsequent affirmation that he would continue to call Xi a “dictator” as “he is a guy who runs a communist country that is based on a form of government totally different than ours.”

“Anyway,” Biden insisted, as he ended his brief press conference following the bilateral meeting, “we made progress.”

To the extent that this highly anticipated meeting between the leaders of these two global superpowers could be condensed into a single interaction, that was it: optimism and obstinance, progress and precaution. For as much as expectations were high ahead of the conference, the end result seems to be a decidedly mixed bag of familiar posturing and feints toward genuine cooperation. There were promises of renewed lines of communication on both the military and political levels, agreements on how best to tackle fentanyl production, discussions on the looming threats posed by artificial intelligence, and other, similarly discrete accomplishments. Xi’s hint on Wednesday that he may send more panda bears to the United States as “envoys of friendship” was a sign that the fractured and frozen “Panda Diplomacy” between the two nations may indeed be thawing and on the mend — but isn’t there yet.

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So how much did Biden and Xi’s meeting really move the diplomatic needle for their respective nations, and what can we expect will happen now that they’ve talked face to face?

If the fact that Biden and Xi met at all is a sign of how significant and crucial a functional U.S.-China relationship is in the 21st century, the “low expectations” set by both nations ahead of this week were a “stark reminder” that the pair “disagree on nearly all of the most consequential issues,” according to the Council of Foreign Relations’ Asia Studies Fellow David Sacks. Tangible accomplishments notwithstanding, the fact is that both nations are in a “long-term strategic competition that is driven by structural factors” likely to intensify in the immediate future. 

Biden’s insistence on describing Xi as a “dictator” was a “closer reflection of the increasingly frosty relationship between the two powers” than any of his praise for the agreements made this week, Politico reported. It also dovetailed with Biden’s broader reelection theme of a global “fight for survival between democracy and autocracy.” In spite of “small wins,” Biden’s “dictator” remarks “threatens to overshadow” the summit at large, Bloomberg agreed, noting how “expectations were low” for the meeting to begin with. 

Highlighting the “good reasons” for Biden and Xi to sit down and negotiate with one another, the Editorial Board of the Wall Street Journal nevertheless questioned whether “any of these verbal commitments will matter given the Chinese Communist Party’s ideology and ambitions.” Biden should send a “sterner message” to Xi, and back it “with more hard power.”

What next?Biden seemed to acknowledge the lowered expectations for this week’s meeting, explaining during his press conference that while the U.S. and China remain “in a competitive relationship” his goal is to “make this rational and manageable so it doesn’t result in conflict.” For Xi, meanwhile, this week’s visit was as much about portraying China “as a friend to foreign companies — because he needs them,” The New York Times reported. Posturing to that effect is not only important for China’s economy, but is a “good image to project to his audience back home” as well. 

Ultimately, both countries will likely continue on their respective paths no matter what, former U.S.-China envoy Robert Daly explained to The New Yorker before Biden and Xi met on Wednesday. “Neither nation is willing to reconsider its nation’s interests or goals.”

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