Emil Guillermo: Of Biden, Xi, APEC, and root canals

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My dilemma this week? I could go to that capitalist meet-up known as APEC (Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation), or I could have a root canal.

Speaking of canals, I would prefer a vacation in Venice.

But as I have an actual tooth issue, I skipped my chance to go to APEC in San Francisco and saw my friendly Asian American immigrant health professional.

For privacy’s sake, I will not say the person’s name. There have been too many attempts by China to harass American citizens of Chinese descent in our country. So for candor and safety, let’s call the person X.

X is real, and X’s story is very common among AAPIs in the U.S.

X came to America nearly 20 years ago to go to professional school. There was no intention of going back to China where family and friends remain. For X, America was the opportunity. X became a naturalized citizen, has kids born here in the U.S., and now has a dental practice that is as close to the American Dream as it gets.

While Xi was trying to repair relations with President Biden and the U.S., X was doing my root canal.

I think X was more successful than Xi.

My tooth no longer hurts. But Xi is still smarting.

After meeting for hours on Wednesday, there were no joint statements from Xi or Biden. Only President Biden gave a news conference, as Xi prepared for a dinner where companies paid $40,000 to schmooze with Xi. That's the main purpose of APEC, after all. Business. Guests included Apple’s Tim Cook and the billionaire Elon Musk.

Biden spoke to the media and unveiled an agreement by China to help stop the flow of Fentanyl, whose component parts are made in China. But how solid would that be or anything else discussed for that matter?

Did Biden trust Xi?

Biden said he has spent a lot of time with Xi over the years and that he has “a different view than I have on a lot of things. But he’s been straight.”

Biden also invoked the “Cold War” phrase “Trust but Verify.” In other words, don’t expect to see a drop in tragic Fentanyl deaths. Nor should you expect to see a whole lot of anything of consequence until it happens.

The fact that Biden and Xi met face to face is the big thing, especially after a year that included the Chinese weather balloon incident last February and Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August that reassured the Taiwanese but rattled Beijing.

Biden emphasized that China and the U.S. are in a “competitive relationship,” and that his job was “to make [the relationship] rational and manageable so it doesn’t result in conflict.” His goal was to find “mutual interest” between the U.S. and China. And the American people.

That means folks like X not Xi.

“I want these countries to get along. I don’t want this tension,” X told me after the root canal. “I’m not expecting these times to be as good as before, like the ‘80s or ‘90s. But let’s go forward.”

So that made the announcement of open communications between the two countries the most important development. Who do you call when a Chinese vessel rammed into a Philippine Naval boat recently in waters near the Spratly Islands, disputed parts of the West Philippine Sea? The Philippines is a U.S. ally. Who was China really sending a message to?

Biden said, “If either one of us have any concern about anything between our nations, or happening in our region, we should pick up the phone and call one another and we’ll take the call. That’s an important progress.”

So now I’m wondering if Xi or Biden called each other up after Biden’s press conference.

As Biden was about to walk out of the news conference, the president allowed for one more question.

CNN’s M.J. Lee asked whether Biden, as he previously has said, still considered Xi a dictator?

Biden was matter of fact about calling Xi a “dictator.”

“Well, look, he is,” Biden said, pointing out Xi heads a communist country that has a different system from ours.

My dentist, X, actually agreed with Biden about Xi.

Xi becoming essentially president for life was holding back China, X said. “People won’t be better. It will reverse history. The party is very much in control. You cannot voice your concern or differences.”

That would be a democracy. And that is not what a strongman ruler like Xi operates in China. That's why there were protestors at APEC calling for a free Tibet. Uyghurs were there to make known the genocide against their people. And veteran activists of Hong Kong's Pro Democracy movement were there to let people know the costs of Xi's iron-hand rule.

Predictably, the Chinese Foreign Ministry responded that Biden’s comments referring to Xi as a dictator were “extremely erroneous,” and an irresponsible political maneuver.

It was one off-script truth, but it broke through the veneer of a carefully orchestrated event.

Did it undo any sense of low-bar progress?

I hoped the principals picked up a phone to chat.

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NOTE: I will talk about this column and other matters on “Emil Amok’s Takeout,” my AAPI micro-talk show. Live @2p Pacific. Livestream on Facebook; my YouTube channel; and Twitter. Catch the recordings on