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All that's at risk for President Biden among talks with China's Xi Jinping

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today, about 30 miles south of San Francisco, at a luxe historic estate, President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping sat down together for a conversation that's been a long time coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: There's no substitute to face-to-face discussions. I've always found our discussions straightforward and frank, and I've always appreciated them.

CHANG: This was the first time the two leaders have spoken in a year, even though there have been a lot of tensions between the U.S. and China. NPR's senior White House correspondent Tamara Keith joins us now from Woodside, Calif. Hey, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hello.

CHANG: So I heard you were ringside for the start of this big meeting. Paint us a picture. Like, what was it like?

KEITH: Well, the meeting is at this beautiful historic estate nestled in the hills south of San Francisco. It's isolated. It's beautiful. Biden stood at the mansion doors as Xi's limo pulled up. They shook hands for the cameras before heading into this ornate room where the American and Chinese delegation sat across from each other along a long table. Biden spoke first, welcoming Xi and explaining why he believes it is so important to keep the lines of communication open in order to, quote, "understand each other clearly, leader to leader, with no misconceptions or miscommunication." Biden added that there are major challenges that would benefit from the two powers working together to address them. He mentioned climate change, narcotics trafficking and artificial intelligence.

But I have to say, Xi's remarks were maybe even more interesting than what President Biden said. He said that the U.S.-China relationship has always faced problems of one kind or another, but turning their backs on each other isn't an option. Planet Earth, he said, is big enough for the two countries to succeed.

CHANG: That sounds a little reassuring.

KEITH: Maybe.

CHANG: Let me ask you this. We've talked a lot on this show about how Biden has tried to focus his foreign policy on countering China, like, whether that's economically or from a national security standpoint. And it was a big focus for former President Trump as well. So let me ask you - we're about a year away from the next presidential election. What are the political stakes for Biden when it comes to China?

KEITH: Yeah. As you say, it was a big focus for former President Trump, as well as it is now for Biden - Trump being the front-runner in next year's presidential race on the Republican side. And China has been a big feature in the Republican primary, with candidates each trying to show that they are the toughest. And there's also a lot of concern among voters. New data from the Chicago Council that I reported on earlier this week shows that there is a record level of Americans who see China as a, quote, "critical threat." That is particularly pronounced among Republicans, but also a majority of independents and Democrats feel that way as well. Ultimately, though, when it comes to voting, most people don't cast a ballot based on foreign policy issues. So, honestly, the election stakes from this meeting probably aren't that high.

CHANG: And, I mean, there are a lot of other foreign policy issues that are big concerns for voters right now, like the war between Israel and Hamas.

KEITH: Right, and I expect that President Biden will be pressed on that later today in his press conference. The latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll out today shows a majority of Democrats say Israel has gone too far in its response to the October 7 attacks by Hamas. And it also shows that there's a division over whether the U.S. should continue funding Ukraine's war with Russia. Biden asked Congress for more than $105 billion for this. That request is not part of the government spending bill that is moving now through the House. So Biden is in a really difficult moment trying to carry out this foreign policy that he says is really important.

CHANG: That is NPR's Tamara Keith in Woodside, Calif. Thank you so much, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Tamara Keith
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. In that time, she has chronicled the final years of the Obama administration, covered Hillary Clinton's failed bid for president from start to finish and thrown herself into documenting the Trump administration, from policy made by tweet to the president's COVID diagnosis and the insurrection. In the final year of the Trump administration and the first year of the Biden administration, she focused her reporting on the White House response to the COVID-19 pandemic, breaking news about global vaccine sharing and plans for distribution of vaccines to children under 12.