Given the state of US-China relations over much of the last year, it wasn’t always a given that President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping would have a face-to-face meeting when Mr Xi travelled to the US for this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference.
The last time the leaders of the world’s two largest economies sat face-to-face had been on the sidelines of the 2022 Group of 20 leaders’ summit in Bali, Indonesia last November.
At the time, tensions between the US and China were already high following then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to visit Taiwan, which so angered Beijing that Chinese officials pulled out of a host of ongoing dialogues and joint efforts, including suspending all communications between the People’s Liberation Army and the US Defence Department.
Things got worse in February after the US Air Force detected, tracked and shot down a Chinese-owned espionage airship that had traversed the continental United States, soaring above several sensitive military installations along the way.
And even as a succession of top aides and cabinet officials continued to speak with their Chinese counterparts over the intervening months, Mr Xi and Mr Biden did not exchange a single word over the phone, nor did they meet during this year’s G20 in India.
So when it was announced that Mr Xi had agreed to meet with the US president during his visit to California — the result of months of repair work by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and others — Mr Biden could have counted himself a winner just by sitting down.
But by the time the summit meeting with Mr Xi broke up after roughly four hours, it’s possible that Mr Biden may have gotten tired of winning, to borrow a phrase from former President Trump.
For years, Republicans have used the ongoing fentanyl overdose crisis as a general-use bludgeon to attack the Biden administration on a whole host of policies — usually related to immigration, but also China.
That’s because most of the precursor chemicals needed to make the synthetic opioid come from Mr Xi’s country, which ships them to Mexico for use by drug cartels before the final product is smuggled among cargo containers through US ports of entry.
Now, after months of talks, Mr Biden has gotten Mr Xi to agree to specific actions that will curb the trafficking of precursors.
According to a senior White House official, Mr Biden pressed Mr Xi hard on curbing drug precursor exports, telling his Chinese counterpart that fentanyl has become “one of the worst drug problems the United States has ever faced,” and said the Chinese leader agreed to take action with a plan devised by American and Chinese negotiators.
“We worked intensively with every element of the Chinese system on a plan that has the Chinese using a number of procedures to go directly after specific companies that make precursors for fentanyl ... they’re taking a number of steps that are designed to dramatically curtail those supplies,” the official said.
“This will set them back for a time and obviously we’re going to want to see whether China continues to follow up. In many respects, the proof is in the pudding here and these are important steps and we think they’re important and the president thought this is the important central thing we can do in US-China relations for the American people,” they continued, adding later that the deal includes “substantial set of steps that the Chinese have agreed to undertake with trying to address fentanyl”.
It is, as Mr Biden might have once said, a “big f***ing deal”. And he could’ve walked away from the table happy with that single agreement in the bag.
But the months of work by his advisers allowed the US leader to notch one more huge victory from his summit.
When Ms Pelosi set foot on Taiwanese soil last August, one of the ways Chinese leaders registered their displeasure was to cut off all communications between the PLA and Pentagon.
One now-infamous example of these informal exchanges took place during the waning days of the Trump administration, when General Mark Milley, then-chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reached out to his PLA counterpart, General Li Zuocheng, in response to what he described to the Senate Armed Services Committee as “concerning intelligence” indicating that Chinese officials feared then-president Donald Trump would order a surprise attack on China.
In testimony delivered on 28 September 2021, eight months after Mr Trump left office, Mr Milley told senators: “I know, I am certain, that President Trump did not intend to attack the Chinese and it was my directed responsibility to convey presidential orders and intent … my task at that time was to de-escalate. My message again was consistent: stay calm, steady, and de-escalate. We are not going to attack you”.
After more than a year of silence, Mr Biden and Mr Xi agreed that the relations between US and Chinese militaries should resume with what the president described as getting “back to direct, open, clear, direct communications, on a direct basis”.
This means that Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin will talk regularly with his Chinese counterpart, as will the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other top commanders. There will also be exchanges between lower-level officers, with the goal of keeping informal relationships afloat to allow for a degree of trust between the two countries’ forces.
James Stavridis, a retired US Navy admiral who served as Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, told The Independent that the move was of “enormous importance, both tactically and strategically”.
“Tactically it will provide a mechanism for senior commanders at every level to communicate and defuse a dangerous situation if necessary. Longer-term, it may provide a strategic framework to create a set of standing protocols that would reduce tensions by separating military units at reasonable distances, much as was the case between the USSR during the Cold War,” he said.
Asked whether the resumption of ties was alone enough to make Mr Biden the “winner” of the summit, he noted in an email that “so much of life is ‘compared to,’” and added that compared to the state of things a year ago, the development was an “outstanding success”.