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Unpacking developments from this year's APEC


President Biden this week welcomed leaders from the 21 economies that make up the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC. Leaders from Canada, China attended the annual summit, but it was the president's meeting with China's leader, Xi Jinping, that got most of the attention. NPR's China correspondent John Ruwitch joins us. John, thanks for being with us.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Happy to do it.

SIMON: You've been in San Francisco. What stood out to you from the APEC meeting?

RUWITCH: Well, the most consequential thing, as you mentioned, I think, is the meeting between Biden and Xi. It's also something that a lot of the APEC economies were watching closely. They met at this historic estate that was south of San Francisco. So they pulled away from the meeting venues. They had four hours of talks. And the outcome was somewhat mixed. You know, they agreed to resume military to military dialogue, which had been cut off since last year when then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went to Taiwan.

The Biden administration has also been very keen to highlight another agreement, which is China's cooperation on fentanyl, and in particular, cracking down on the export of precursors to make fentanyl, which is a huge domestic issue here in the U.S., with tens of thousands of people dying each year from this horrible drug - especially important during an upcoming election season. And here's what Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said on Wednesday evening about this.


GINA RAIMONDO: Because of it, we made progress today. We agreed to restart cooperation on illicit fentanyl to reduce the flow of precursor chemicals to drug cartels. I promise you, this will save American lives. And thank you, President Xi, for your coordination and collaboration on that.

RUWITCH: What the administration didn't highlight actively is that it had to lift sanctions off of a Chinese forensics institute that the Trump administration said was involved in human rights abuses in China's far west. But overall, analysts think talking is better than not talking at this stage. And they're talking again.

SIMON: And President Xi gave a speech to U.S. business leaders at a time that the Chinese economy has had reverses. Was he pitching U.S. companies?

RUWITCH: He did not. That was interesting. You know, this dinner took place shortly after the summit between Biden and Xi. It was attended by big hitters like Apple CEO Tim Cook, the investor Ray Dalio. But Xi Jinping did not make a pitch. You know, there's been a policy shift under Xi that's emphasized security over reforms and markets. American businesses and foreign businesses in general have become increasingly sort of worried and pessimistic about risks of operating there. But Xi Jinping talked about people-to-people relations and talked about other things, really. He made no promises to make improvements to the business environment, so it wasn't completely satisfying to everyone.

There was good news, though. He seemed to suggest that pandas will be coming back to the U.S., right? The Smithsonian National Zoo repatriated three pandas earlier this month. There was some hand-wringing that maybe because relations were so bad with China, these pandas were never coming back. He says they might.

SIMON: And what else do you take away from the meeting?

RUWITCH: Well, a lot of this - you know, these meetings - there's a lot of sideline diplomacy that happened. So Xi met Biden. Xi met Mexico's leader as well as Japan's. Biden had talks with Japan and Korea. APEC's about economic cooperation, and one thing the U.S. has been working on is the thing called the Indo-Pacific economic framework, or IPEF, which is a U.S. initiative with 14 countries from around the region. They're trying to deepen connections, deepen economic ties. Some compare it to and see it as a counter to China's Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. And remember, the Biden administration is all about saying the U.S.-China relationship is competitive.

The ball was supposed to be moved forward on this IPEF at - during the APEC meeting. There were some areas where it did, but it did not in trade. It seemed to have stalled out there, which is a reflection of political sensitivities here in the U.S. around free trade - kind of also shows that the U.S. may be a little out of sync with APEC's broader goals of opening up increasing trade and economic links. At least, perhaps that's maybe when it bumps up against domestic political priorities here in the U.S. during an election cycle.

SIMON: And, of course, China's going to be an important foreign policy issue in the election that's coming up. Any concern that politics could have an effect on any agreements?

RUWITCH: It may. You know, foreign policy's never a huge factor in U.S. elections. It's also not Xi Jinping's first rodeo when it comes to U.S. elections. He's been through a few of them. The bigger question is the trajectory of the relationship in general. Biden and Xi made nice here in San Francisco - they smiled. But their speeches and their words really showed that fundamental differences, strategic differences, differences of worldview remain in place.

SIMON: NPR's John Ruwitch in San Francisco. Thanks so much.

RUWITCH: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.