Xi signals marked shift in tone for China on US – but with Biden’s off-the-cuff ‘dictator’ comment can it last?

US President Joe Biden greets Chinese leader Xi Jinping before a bilateral meeting in Woodside, California in November 2023

Analysis by Simone McCarthy, CNN       

Chinese leader Xi Jinping presented an amicable China ready to improve ties with the United States in a landmark meeting with US President Joe Biden last month, marking a noticeable shift in tone for Beijing as it looks to minimize friction with Washington.

Whether that shift is a lasting one for the contentious relationship will be put to an immediate test, however, by comments made by Biden during a solo press conference after the meeting. There, the President reiterated his view that Xi is a “dictator,” after being asked by a reporter whether he stood by a comment saying as much this past June.

At that point, Beijing reacted with vitriol, with the remark seen as casting a shadow over tentative progress in advancing dialogue between the two sides following a visit from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

When asked about Biden’s latest comment at a Chinese Foreign Ministry briefing on Thursday, a spokesperson called it “extremely erroneous” and an “irresponsible political maneuver, which China firmly opposes.”

“What needs to be pointed out is that there will always be some people with ulterior motives attempting to undermine China-US relations. They will not succeed in doing so,” spokesperson Mao Ning said.

It’s still unclear whether there will be any further reaction this time, but the response comes as China’s signaling around the San Francisco Bay Area meeting between Xi and Biden has marked a shift away from its hardline position on the United States. This softening comes as China grapples with a troubled economy and is keen to highlight Xi as a powerful and capable world leader.

According to statements from both the US and China Wednesday, the two sides agreed to restore military communications and to combat the flow of fentanyl from China to the US during several hours of “constructive” meetings.

China labeled the talks as “positive” and “comprehensive” — while also highlighting Xi’s efforts to spell out Beijing’s non-negotiables such as its position on Taiwan and perceived American efforts to contain China’s rise.

Xi’s optics

On Chinese state media and across social media platforms, where the hashtag #Planet-Earth-Is-Big-Enough-For-Both-China-And-The-US was trending, the broad perception appeared to be of a job well done.

Chinese state broadcaster CCTV highlighted how Biden invited Xi for a walk around the leafy estate where the meeting took place and that the American leader “personally escorted him to his car to bid goodbye” — a detail that was also highlighted in another top-trending hashtag on Chinese social media.

The positive coverage of the event was a break from the typical rhetoric critical of the US that often plays across Chinese state and social media. Anti-US rhetoric has been a significant theme boosting growth in Chinese nationalism as tensions flared between the two in recent years.

The optics of a warm welcome and the display of a commanding presence next to Biden are critically important for Xi, who analysts say was not only keen to stabilize a complicated relationship at a time of economic weakness, but also to present himself to his domestic audience as skillfully helming China’s foreign affairs.

Xi’s visit came as the Chinese economy struggles with a property market crisis, high local government debt and record youth unemployment. At the same time, crackdowns across several sectors have pummeled business confidence and led many to question what opportunities remained in China.

“These challenges are tremendous,” said Alfred Wu, associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, who noted that in California, Xi wanted to show viewers back home his “leadership capacity in the foreign affairs arena” and that he is highly regarded in America and a world leader on par with Biden.

A press conference with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in California following the bilateral meeting also underscored some of those optics.

Wang noted that Biden sent a “separate invitation to President Xi Jinping specifically to hold a heads of state meeting,” unlike other bilateral meeting arrangements happening during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum that Xi and other leaders from across the Pacific are in town to attend.

“(The Xi-Biden meeting) is sure to become a milestone … and a major event in today’s international relations,” Wang said, pointing out that the four-hour face-to-face talks were held “amidst the backdrop of a critical stage in China-US relations.”

Xi also took a conciliatory tone speaking at a dinner event in front of American CEOs later that day.

He told the audience the most fundamental question shaping US-China relations is whether they are rivals or partners.

“If we regard each other as the biggest rival, the most significant geopolitical challenge and an ever-pressing threat, it will inevitably lead to wrong policies, wrong actions and wrong results,” Xi told an audience that included Apple CEO Tim Cook and Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

“China is willing to be a partner and friend of the United States,” he added.

‘Bottom lines’

While it helped to advance dialogue and cooperation, the meeting was also a chance for both sides to highlight their differences — and showed areas where they did not reach consensus, which analysts say will continue to define their contentious relationship.

And even within areas where they two sides did come to agreement, there remains fragile ground.

China’s announcement of the restoration of military communications, which the Biden administration had long pushed for, said those would resume “on the basis of equality and respect.”

“What that means is in the future anytime China is annoyed with anything the US does, China can say it’s cutting off military-to-military dialogues again and blame it on the US (for) no longer making China feel ‘respected,’” said Wen-Ti Sung, a Taiwan-based fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub.

“(This) undermines the basis of the talks’ resumption and existence,” he added.

On Taiwan, the self-ruling democracy that China’s ruling Communist Party claims, Xi urged the US to stop arming the island and to support China’s “peaceful reunification,” according to China’s readout of the meeting released by state media.

“China will eventually achieve reunification, and will inevitably achieve reunification,” Xi was quoted as saying — another line that was also trending on Chinese social media following the meeting.

Biden, for his part, reaffirmed the long-standing American position on Taiwan and its opposition to any unilateral changes to the status quo, saying cross-strait differences must be “resolved by peaceful means,” according to a readout from the White House.

Xi also called on the US to “not scheme to suppress or contain China,” in an apparent reference to America’s strengthening of its alliances in Asia and what Beijing sees as efforts to stymie its economic development with trade and investment restrictions on high tech. Washington says those curbs are intended to protect its national security against an assertive and authoritarian China.

“Both sides should understand each other’s principles and bottom lines,” Xi added.

The deep concerns each has about the other’s intentions are unlikely to be soothed after one meeting. How those agreements are executed in the weeks and months to come say much about whether China and the US are both committed to lasting stability.

“The meeting indicates that the US-China relationship is not going to further worsen in the next year, but will it rebound very quickly and become significantly warmer very soon? I would say no,” said Liu Dongshu, an assistant professor focusing on Chinese politics at City University of Hong Kong.

“Of course, Xi Jinping wants better US-China relations, but (Beijing) realizes … the fundamental fact (is) that the US wants to contain China, so their expectation is that warmer relations are good, but as long as they don’t get worse, they can accept that,” he said.

One immediate indicator of how relations will progress may be seen in any further response from Beijing to Biden’s “dictator” comment, and whether its state media and social media platforms continue gloss over the comment to focus on the positive outcomes from Wednesday.

Biden himself seems to indicate hope that the two can work through their differences as he noted that “(Xi) is a dictator in the sense that he is a guy who runs a country that is communist” and that the Chinese government “is totally different than ours.”

“Anyway,” he added. “We made progress.”

CNN’s Mengchen Zhang and Nectar Gan contributed to this report.

Editor’s Note: While there were plenty of major global issues on the agenda for President Joe Biden’s summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the suggestion of sending new pandas to the U.S. was not on the list and did not come up during the talks, a senior administration official said. There are still some pandas in the U.S. at Zoo Atlanta, but they are set to depart next year if the deal is not extended. The panda agreements are made between the Chinese government and American zoos, without the direct involvement of the U.S. government.

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