July 14, 2024

Chinese President Xi Jinping has arrived in the United States for his first visit in six years, after US President Joe Biden said his goal in their bilateral talks this week was to restore normal communications with Beijing, including military-to-military contacts.

Xi is due to meet Biden near San Francisco on Wednesday morning US time, before attending the annual summit of the 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) grouping.

The summit will be their first face-to-face meeting in a year and follows months of high-level meetings to prepare the ground, after tensions between the two countries spiked over issues from trade to human rights and the pandemic.

Speaking ahead of his departure, Biden said his goal was simply to improve the bilateral relationship.

“We’re not trying to decouple from China. What we’re trying to do is change the relationship for the better,” Biden told reporters at the White House before heading to San Francisco.

Asked what he hoped to achieve at the meeting, he said he wanted “to get back on a normal course of corresponding; being able to pick up the phone and talk to one another if there’s a crisis; being able to make sure our [militaries] still have contact with one another”.

Xi waved from the door of his Air China plane before walking down the steps to meet US officials, including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns, who were waiting on the tarmac.

He is on his first visit to US since 2017 when he met then president Donald Trump.

Xi Jinping supporters waving Chinese and US flags outside his hotel.
Supporters of Chinese President Xi Jinping gathered outside the hotel where the Chinese delegation is staying [Carlos Barria/Reuters]

China, which regularly talks about “red lines” on issues such as the self-ruled island Taiwan, which it claims as its own and its expansive claims in the South China Sea, has been more circumspect about its expectations for the summit.

A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry mentioned only “in-depth communication” and “major issues concerning world peace” when asked about the meeting this week.

Nevertheless, analysts said the very fact the talks were taking place was significant.

“The importance of the much-expected meeting between President Biden and President Xi in San Francisco cannot be understated, no matter the likely shallowness of the outcomes,” Alicia Garcia Herrero of investment banking group Natixis wrote in an analysis ahead of the summit.

Protests expected

Crowds gathered along the route of Xi’s motorcade to the luxury hotel where the Chinese delegation is staying.

Some held signs that read “End CCP,” the initials of Chinese Communist Party. Another sign read “Warmly Welcome President Xi Jinping” and was stuck to concrete bollards.

Outside the hotel, several hundred Beijing supporters waved US and Chinese flags as they waited and played the patriotic song Ode to the Motherland through loudspeakers

Scuffles broke out with the few anti-Xi protesters who were there, but police quickly intervened to restore calm.

Pro-China and anti-China demonstrators also gathered near the Moscone Center, the venue where many of the APEC meetings were being held. Larger protests, including by rights groups critical of Xi’s policies in Tibet, Hong Kong and towards Muslim Uyghurs, are expected near the summit venue on Wednesday.

A large banner outside the APEC venue reading 'Dictator Xi Jinping, your time is up! Free Tibet'. It is being held by several Tibetan students
Tibetan student activists showed their opposition to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s leadership and rights record [Laure Andrillon/AFP]

Xi and Biden are expected to meet at Filoli Estate, a country house museum about 40km (25 miles) south of San Francisco, the Associated Press news agency reported, citing three senior officials in the US administration who requested anonymity. The venue has not yet been confirmed by the White House and Chinese government.

While economic issues are likely to be high on the agenda of the meeting, including steps to curb the production of the potent synthetic opioid drug fentanyl, increasing geopolitical tensions are likely to dominate discussions.

White House National Security Spokesperson John Kirby told reporters that Biden and Xi would talk about the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza as well as Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

While Washington has sought to reset ties with China, it has also signalled that will not be at the expense of key US concerns.

Biden is “not going to be afraid to – to confront where confrontation is needed on issues where we don’t see eye to eye with President Xi and the PRC,” Kirby said, using the initials for the People’s Republic of China.

President Joe Biden arriving at the airport in San Francisco, He is near the bottom of the plane steps and two guards on either side are saluting
President Joe Biden arrives at San Francisco International Airport for the APEC summit, Tuesday, November 14, 2023 [Evan Vucci/AP]

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told APEC ministers that the US believed in “a region where economies are free to choose their own path … where goods, ideas, people flow lawfully and freely”.

Blinken did not mention China by name, but his language echoed US rhetoric in recent years in which Washington has accused China of bullying smaller countries in the Asia Pacific and trying to undermine what the US and its allies call the “rules-based” international order.

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