In Washington, President Xi Jinping of China is largely considered a mysterious autocrat who has long harbored a fatalistic view of his country’s relationship with the United States.
But for a brief moment on Wednesday, at a century-old gilded mansion in the hills of Northern California, President Biden treated Mr. Xi like just another car guy.
“It’s a beautiful vehicle!” Mr. Biden said as he walked the Chinese leader to his car, an armored, 18-foot Hongqi sedan, after a long day of diplomatic wrangling, according to a video published by the state-run China Global Television Network.
“Show the president,” Mr. Xi said through a translator, chuckling. Mr. Biden, whose love of muscle cars is so well known that it has been skewered by the satirical news site The Onion, peeked inside Mr. Xi’s car, then gestured to his own ride, a squat armored Cadillac built like a rolling bunker.
“You know what they call that car?” Mr. Biden asked Mr. Xi. “They call it ‘The Beast.’”
Amid global tumult and simmering tensions between the United States and China, the two took time in their first meeting in a year to exchange the sort of awkward pleasantries that adversarial leaders deploy when they are trying to make nice.
Mr. Biden wished Mr. Xi’s wife a happy birthday. Mr. Xi replied with embarrassment that he had forgotten her birthday was approaching because he had been working so much. At another point, Mr. Biden brandished a picture of a younger Mr. Xi standing on the Golden Gate Bridge.
“I said, ‘I wanted to show you a picture,’” Mr. Biden said Wednesday evening at a reception for leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit that Mr. Xi did not attend. “He said, ‘I like that picture.’ Well, he was translated to say, ‘I like that picture.’” At a high-dollar dinner across town, Mr. Xi hinted that giant pandas, which he called “envoys of friendship” between the two countries, could be returning to the United States. Only one U.S. zoo is left with a pair after Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington returned two aging adult pandas and their cub to China earlier this month as previously agreed.
Mr. Biden eventually pierced the “Kumbaya” moment by telling reporters after the carefully coordinated summit that he still considered the Chinese leader a dictator. Mao Ning, a spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry, called Mr. Biden’s comment “extremely wrong.”
Dealing with leaders who have unsavory politics is part of presidential diplomacy. Mr. Biden’s predecessor, Donald J. Trump, enjoyed buddying up with such leaders — once in a friendly summit with Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in Helsinki, and three times in meetings with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, whose top secret letters he kept stashed in a box of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.
In 2009, President Barack Obama, seeking a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians, invited the autocratic Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to the White House. (He called for Mr. Mubarak’s ouster two years later, during the Arab Spring uprising.) In 1982, President Ronald Reagan honored Suharto, the Indonesian president who had led a massacre of some 400,000 members of an opposition party, at the White House for a state dinner.
In dealing with Mr. Xi and other leaders he has known for years, Mr. Biden adopts a style rooted in nostalgia without letting memories cloud his vision. He said he would “trust but verify” the developments that came from the summit, which include curbing the flow of the chemical precursors for fentanyl and making sure the militaries of the two superpowers are openly communicating.
Despite the warm gestures, Mr. Biden still believes he is dealing with a dictator, as he told a reporter: “I mean, he’s a dictator in the sense that he is a guy who runs a country that — it’s a Communist country that is based on a form of government totally different than ours.”
The comment incensed some Chinese officials, but it did not seem to register with Mr. Xi, who came to the United States to court American investment in his country at a time of high unemployment and low growth. (He still offered the pandas, after all.) Mr. Xi has also collected tokens of affection during his trip to California, including a Golden State Warriors jersey presented by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
But in the end, car talk and sports merchandise may only go so far to address the deep divisions between the two countries.
On Thursday, the two leaders came face-to-face again when they posed for a group photo at the conference — all smiles — and then participated in a planning session related to climate change. During that event, Mr. Biden said that “the impacts of climate change are being felt the most by those countries that contribute the least to the problem, including developing countries,” and spoke at length about what the United States was doing to combat the problem.
While Biden spoke, Mr. Xi spent several minutes gazing into the distance.