U.S. President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, agreed to measures aimed at stabilizing Sino-American relations Wednesday, pledging to restore high-level communications channels between their militaries and discussing steps Beijing will take to limit illicit production of the opioid fentanyl.

After their meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit, Mr. Biden told reporters that these talks with China constituted “some of the most constructive and productive discussions” he’s had with Mr. Xi.

The U.S. President said regular military communication between the two countries had almost evaporated. Tensions between Beijing and Washington have escalated in recent years over trade and China’s growing geopolitical ambitions.

“We’re resuming military-to-military contact: direct contact and as a lot of you press know who follow this – that’s been cut off and it’s been very worrisome,” he said after the meeting at a Northern California garden estate. “That is how accidents happen: misunderstandings.”

Confrontations between China and the United States and allies have flared up in recent months in the South China Sea and in the skies above with aggressive behaviour by Chinese sailors and pilots taking their warships or aircraft extremely close to foreign militaries operating in international waters.

A Chinese fighter plane last month fired flares in front of a Canadian military helicopter and a People’s Republic of China ship used a water cannon against a Philippines vessel.

“Vital miscalculations on either side can cause real trouble with a country like China,” Mr. Biden told reporters.

“So we’re back to direct, open, clear communications on a direct basis.”

He said China has agreed to take measures to stop the shipment to North and South America of chemicals used in the production of fentanyl, as well as the pill presses employed in the process.

“More people in the United States between the ages of 18 to 49 die from fentanyl than from guns, car accidents or any other cause, period,” Mr. Biden said. “So with this new understanding, we’re taking action to significantly reduce the flow of precursor chemicals and pill presses from China to the Western Hemisphere.”

He said that China and the United States have also agreed to work together to discuss risk and safety issues stemming from the rapid growth of artificial intelligence (AI). It wasn’t clear from Mr. Biden’s remarks whether this would pave the way for an agreement on guard rails around the development of AI.

“Almost everywhere I go, every major leader wants to talk about the impact of artificial intelligence,” Mr. Biden said. “These are tangible steps in the right direction to determine what’s useful and what’s not useful, what is dangerous and what’s acceptable.”

The U.S President said Wednesday’s agreement doesn’t change the fact that the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are rivals.

“The United States will continue to compete vigorously with the PRC, but we’ll manage that competition responsibly so it doesn’t veer into conflict, or accidental conflict,” he said. “And where it’s possible, where our interests coincide, we’re going to work together like we did on fentanyl. That’s what the world expects of us.”

The co-operation hasn’t changed Mr. Biden’s mind about Mr. Xi. Asked by a reporter if he still considered the Chinese President a dictator, he replied: “Well, look, he is.”

Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi held their meeting at the garden estate, 40 kilometres south of San Francisco, Wednesday morning as competing protests faced off in the city’s downtown with some people chanting “free Tibet” and “free Hong Kong” and others waving the Chinese flag. Their meeting continued for two hours before they broke for a working lunch with top aides.

Before the meeting, Mr. Xi told Mr. Biden that it was not up to the United States to decide how China managed its affairs. “It is unrealistic for one side to remodel the other, and conflict and confrontation has unbearable consequences for both sides,” he said, speaking through a translator.

But he also leavened his message with diplomatic appeals to look past the superpower tensions that have increasingly plagued the relationship over the past seven years. Things took a major downturn in August, 2022, when Beijing reacted poorly to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visiting Taiwan, a self-governing democracy it has been working to diplomatically isolate in hopes of annexing it.

“Planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed,” the Chinese President told Mr. Biden, noting that the U.S.-China relationship has never been smooth.

China’s menacing and threats to annex Taiwan, its increasing aggressive conduct in the South China Sea and overhead airspace, its quashing of civil liberties in Hong Kong and its repression of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang have all brought Washington and Beijing into constant conflict in recent years.

Fraying economic ties between the United States and China have led to both sides reducing their commercial interdependence on each other, first after former president Donald Trump slapped tariffs on Chinese imports and then as the United States restricted access by companies in China to U.S. technology.

Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi both have their hands full with other matters. U.S. focus is already divided between supporting Ukraine in its battle against a Russian invasion and efforts to stop the Israel-Hamas war from spreading beyond the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Xi, meanwhile, is grappling with economic problems at home including a continuing property crisis, dramatic levels of youth unemployment and a pullback by foreign investors. China just recorded its first quarterly deficit in foreign direct investment: US$11.8-billion during the July-September period, according to preliminary balance-of-payments data. That’s the first quarterly shortfall since China’s foreign-exchange regulator began compiling the data in 1998.

The last attempt by China and the United States to arrest their declining relationship – a meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 20 meeting in Bali last November – was derailed at the start of 2023 when a Chinese spy balloon drifted across North American airspace before being shot down by U.S. fighter planes off the South Carolina coast.

Craig Singleton, senior China fellow at the non-partisan Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, warned Wednesday against assuming progress has been made.

“More likely is that Xi and Biden’s meeting will merely extend the illusion of constructive bilateral engagement – reinforcing, rather than resolving, China’s contentious course,” Mr. Singleton said in a statement.

“Far from mitigating Beijing’s brashness, diplomatic overtures aimed at stabilizing Sino-U.S. relations have instead emboldened Xi,” he said. “With America’s attention diverted to Ukraine and the Middle East, further appeasing Beijing’s aggression today risks encouraging Chinese overreach, raising the specter of miscalculation or worse, war, tomorrow.”

The Globe and Mail, November 15, 2023