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Biden lands in San Francisco for high-stakes meeting with China’s Xi Jinping

U.S. President Joe Biden walks down the stairs from Air Force One after arriving at San Francisco International Airport.
U.S. President Joe Biden arrives at San Francisco International Airport ahead of the APEC summit on November 14, 2023 in San Francisco, California. | Source: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

President Joe Biden touched down at San Francisco International Airport on Tuesday afternoon ahead of a highly anticipated meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping—their first face-to-face meeting in a year—on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco. 

Biden landed at 1:16 p.m. and was almost immediately greeted by San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Gov. Gavin Newsom. The president removed his trademark aviator sunglasses before shaking hands with Newsom and hugging Breed. Over 2,000 protesters were lining the road away from the airport, with some holding signs that said “End CCP [Chinese Communist Party]” and “Free Hong Kong.” However, many people were also seen waving Chinese flags.

U.S. President Joe Biden greets San Francisco Mayor London Breed at San Francisco International Airport.
President Joe Biden, left, talks with San Francisco Mayor London Breed after arriving at San Francisco International Airport ahead of the APEC summit on Nov. 14, 2023. | Source: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Upon entering the city, the president’s motorcade passed by hundreds of people lining each side of the street and waving Chinese and American flags. One protestor held a sign that read, “China has concentration camps,” but the majority of people were cheering, and dragon dancers were seen on one block.

On the flight to San Francisco, White House aides discussed a range of topics that included the economy, the war in Gaza and Biden’s meeting with Xi. The two leaders are set to meet Wednesday at Filoli estate in Woodside, roughly 25 miles south of San Francisco, according to Voice of America. Vice President Kamala Harris also arrived in San Francisco on Tuesday afternoon.

The Presidential motorcade carrying President Joe Biden is seen driving up Third Street as supporters and opponents of Chinese President Xi Jinping are seen in the background. | Video by Gina Castro/The Standard | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

Ahead of the APEC summit, thousands of people took to the city’s streets on Sunday to protest a range of issues, most notably the war in Gaza. John Kirby, a National Security Council spokesperson for the White House, told reporters Tuesday that diplomat Brett McGuirk is en route to the Middle East and will be focusing on freeing the hostages in the conflict between Israel and Hamas. He added that the U.S. Treasury has issued a third round of sanctions on Hamas.

Much of the focus this week will turn on Biden’s meeting with Xi, whose stop in the San Francisco Bay Area marks his first visit to the U.S. since an April 2017 meeting at Mar-a-Lago, former President Donald Trump’s Florida resort. It is also the Chinese president’s first visit to San Francisco since 1985, when he was a small-town Communist Party chief. In addition to meeting with Biden, Xi is expected to attend a gathering of business executives on Wednesday evening at the Hyatt Regency. 

A senior administration official told reporters that the Biden and Xi will discuss the importance of strengthening communication between the two superpowers and managing competition responsibly—along with a range of issues that could prove contentious, such as election interference. Biden is also likely to touch on China’s role in the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas wars, the official said. The Bay Area meeting will be Biden and Xi’s seventh interaction since Biden took office.

A large outdoor garden area with a large sunken pool on a sunny day.
The Sunken Garden at the Filoli estate, also known as the Bourn-Roth Estate, in Woodside. President Joe Biden and China's Xi Jinping are set to meet at the property on Wednesday. | Source: Leonard G./German Wikipedia by Sozi

Biden said that his goal for the talks is simply to try to get U.S.-Chinese communications back on stable ground after a tumultuous year.

“Being able to pick up the phone and talk to one another if there’s a crisis. Being able to make sure our militaries still have contact with one another,” Biden told reporters at the White House. “We’re not trying to decouple from China, but what we’re trying to do is change the relationship for the better.”

The long-complicated U.S.-Chinese relationship has come under heavy strain over the last year, with Beijing bristling over new U.S. export controls on advanced technology; Biden ordering the shooting down of a Chinese spy balloon after it traversed the continental United States; and Chinese anger over a stopover in the U.S. by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen earlier this year, among other issues. China claims the island as its territory.

Details of the Biden-Xi meeting, which is expected to happen Wednesday, have been closely guarded: Citing security concerns, the administration official said only that the meeting will take place somewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area. Likewise, statements Friday by China’s government didn’t mention the day or location. 

Asked what the meeting will look like, the administration official pointed to last year’s meeting in Bali, which happened on the sidelines of the Group of 20 (G20) summit. The official said that the meeting took place over a couple of different sessions focused on either bilateral or global issues. 

While in the San Francisco Bay Area, Biden is also expected to attend a Tuesday night fundraising event organized by local Democratic donors and an exclusive reception on Wednesday at the Exploratorium. He will also meet with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to discuss border issues on Friday, the White House said.

A Delicate Dance

The high-stakes meeting requires elaborate choreography as both sides potentially haggle over everything from meeting time and length to who enters the room first: Will they use a table or easy chairs? What about security presence and interpreter access?

Victor Cha, former director for Asian Affairs on the White House’s National Security Council, said organizing such meetings at APEC is easier than at a formal location. But, he said, hammering out talks on summit sidelines is still “a logistics nightmare.”

Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the Indo-Pacific program at the German Marshall Fund, said that, for the upcoming meeting, Xi’s team likely pushed for a venue away from the APEC site and talks lasting longer than those in Bali. 

China's President Xi Jinping sits at a long table with other people with the American flag in the background
China's President Xi Jinping hosts bilateral meetings with U.S. President Donald Trump at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017. | Source: Thomas Peter/Getty Images

“The Chinese want a separate summit,” she said. 

The Chinese attach importance to the location of the meeting. Chinese state media might also fixate on the weather as a barometer for bilateral relations: Early forecasts are calling for rain with a high in the mid-60s for San Francisco. 

Even on-site flowers could be important, as certain choices can symbolize harmony in Chinese culture. Plum blossom is a well-liked flower known in China for persevering amid harshness, while lotuses convey peace in the Chinese language. Chrysanthemums, by contrast, are associated with death. 

Xi is known to schedule his trips down to the minute and often packing in so much that there’s no time to eat, according to a documentary on its diplomatic principles China released in 2017.

Both sides also always have security concerns. Obama wrote in his memoir of his 2009 China trip that his team was “instructed to leave any non-governmental electronic devices on the plane” and to operate assuming “that our communications were being monitored” and hotel rooms had hidden cameras. 

Josh Koehn contributed to this report.
Annie Gaus can be reached at