The world watched with bated breath as President Biden welcomed General Secretary Xi Jinping to Woodside, California on the sidelines of the 30th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit held in San Francisco. As Xi exited his limousine at the Filoli Estate, the Chinese choreography for his engagement with President Biden became apparent. Xi arrived in a Hongqi (红旗 , meaning "Red Flag") N701, the Chinese version of the American president's "beast," the up-armored Cadillac limo. The optics were clear as the Chinese were mirroring what the Americans do: Our leader rides in our vehicle, not yours! Perhaps a subtle reminder that Xi will not take a back seat to anyone and is striving to reset the world to Chinese standards.
This was the first in-person Biden-Xi meeting in almost exactly one year. Those intervening 12 months witnessed increased tension in the bilateral relationship most aptly characterized by the U.S. shootdown of a Chinese surveillance balloon after it had traversed most of the continental United States in February 2023. China's indignation at having its Minister of Defense General Li Shangfu sanctioned by the U.S. contributed to the end of military-to-military communications between the two powers. Now that he has been sacked by Xi, that impediment appears to have been removed. The Biden administration's and Congress' continued tightening of economic and technological restrictions on China served to further cool ties between Beijing and Washington – not to mention the deepening U.S. support for Taiwan; the People's Liberation Army (PLA) harassment of U.S. and other countries' airplanes and ships in international waters; diplomatic support for Russian President Vladimir Putin; plus a myriad of other causes for tension. In short, the relationship was strained at best.
Nevertheless, the Biden administration wanted Xi to attend APEC in San Francisco, and dispatched several cabinet level officials (Secretaries Blinken, Yellen, and Raimondo as well as Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Kerry) on a sort of one-way shuttle diplomacy over the course of three months this summer to Beijing to secure the General Secretary's attendance. It was one-way because the Chinese did not reciprocate with a cabinet-level visitor to Washington until China's top diplomat Wang Yi finally came in late October to finalize the details of Xi's trip to California. China's Foreign Minister Qin Gang was also sacked in July by Xi, so perhaps that caused the delay in reciprocity. With Beijing assured that America would host the General Secretary appropriately, the Chinese Foreign Ministry eventually confirmed Xi's attendance on November 10th, only days before the APEC summit involving heads of state from 21 Asia-Pacific countries.
It has not been made public what concessions, if any, the U.S. had to make to guarantee Xi's attendance. It is to be assumed that the Biden administration valued his presence at the APEC summit because if the leader of the world's No. 2 economy did not attend, then that would certainly cast a shadow on the forum and the U.S. as its host. Bilaterally, it is also to be presumed that President Biden wanted to demonstrate that PRC-U.S. communications at the leader level were stable. That is a laudable objective, although President Biden's rightfully calling Xi a dictator during a press conference may have undercut whatever goodwill might have been established during their tête-à-tête at the Filoli Estate.
With the bilateral meeting and the APEC summit itself in the rearview mirror, we can make some initial assessments on the deliverables that have been announced. The White House Press Release was mostly one-sided, focusing on what President Biden said. That is diplomatic speak for the Chinese did not agree.
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Yet it appears as if the two sides did agree to resume military-to-military talks including the periodic U.S.-China Defense Policy Coordination Talks (DPCT) and the U.S.-China Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) meetings. As a previous observer and participant in these fora, I can attest that they can be useful arenas in which to discuss defense and security matters. However, they do not, in and of themselves, commit the Chinese to changing their aggressive behavior. Candidly, the PLA's unsafe and provocative air and maritime intercepts have not gotten any better despite years of past DPCTs and MMCAs. In fact, just as the Chinese agreed to talk to the U.S. military again, it was reported that a PLA Navy destroyer had used its sonar against Australian Navy divers in a dangerous manner. This was on the heels of Prime Minister Albanese's recent visit to Beijing. Chinese words often do not match their deeds.
During Xi's speech to a high-powered audience of American executives in San Francisco on November 15, he stated "Whatever stage of development it may reach, China will never pursue hegemony or expansion, and will never impose its will on others... China does not seek spheres of influence and will not fight a cold war or a hot war with anyone." Unfortunately, history does not bear out what the General Secretary said with such enthusiasm to the assembled American business elite. We should remember his famous commitment to President Obama in 2015, pledging that "China does not intend to pursue militarization" in the South China Sea. Additionally, Chinese use of economic coercion to attain political ends against Australia, Norway, Lithuania, South Korea, Taiwan, and a long list of others has become an all-too-common occurrence.
The Biden administration appears satisfied with the Xi visit, despite widespread misgivings about Xi's actual commitment to improving relations given the overwhelming divergence of interests and values. To be fair, if the Chinese do cooperate to establish meaningful military-to-military dialogue, control the chemical precursors needed to manufacture fentanyl, refrain from the malicious use of artificial intelligence, and send more pandas to America and help with climate change (but only as a developing country, of course), then that would be an accomplishment. If history is a guide, a healthy dose of skepticism may be warranted. The fact that Biden administration officials are liberally using President Reagan's famous maxim "trust but verify" is a positive indicator.
Chinese netizens rallied around President Biden, calling Xi's Hongqi "beautiful," even suggesting that the Americans might want to upgrade from their Cadillac. It is not surprising that ordinary Chinese are proud that times have changed, given China's unprecedented development and global influence. The Red Flag cruising the streets of San Francisco is emblematic of that. However, it may not be completely lost on some that China has not yet completely risen to the top. Xi still flies in an American-made Boeing 747. When that changes, we may need to reassess.
* Heino Klinck is a MEMRI Board of Advisors member. He served as the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia, 2019-2021. As an Army Foreign Area Officer, he served as a military attaché in China, 2004-2010.
 Whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2023/11/15/readout-of-president-joe-bidens-meeting-with-president-xi-jinping-of-the-peoples-republic-of-china-2/, November 15, 2023.
 Reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/australia-criticises-china-unsafe-unprofessional-naval-interaction-2023-11-18, November 18, 2023.
 Chinadaily.com.cn/a/202311/16/WS6555a832a31090682a5ee887.html, November 16, 2023.
 Wsj.com/articles/china-completes-runway-on-artificial-island-in-south-china-sea-1443184818, September 25, 2015.
 Todayonline.com/world/xi-jinping-hongqi-car-n701-2307531, November 17, 2023.