After a nearly three-hour virtual meeting, President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed that their countries must walk cautiously as they compete in an increasingly dangerous environment.
Faced with domestic constraints, both Biden and Xi appeared intent on lowering the temperature in their most important — and usually tumultuous — relationship on the world stage.
“As I’ve stated previously, I believe it is our obligation as leaders of China and the United States to ensure that our countries’ rivalry does not veer into conflict, whether intentionally or unintentionally,” Biden told Xi at the outset of their virtual meeting on Monday. “It’s just a plain and easy competition.”
The White House had set modest expectations for the summit, which resulted in no significant announcements or even a joint statement. Despite this, White House officials claim that the two leaders had a productive conversation.
“China and the United States need to strengthen communication and collaboration,” Xi said, greeting Obama as a “old friend.” Xi repeated Biden’s warm tone in his own opening comments, adding, “China and the United States need to increase communication and cooperation.”
Since Biden’s inauguration in January, the relationship has been fraught with tensions as he has repeatedly chastised Beijing for human rights violations against Uyghurs in northwest China, suppression of democratic protests in Hong Kong, military aggression against the self-ruled island of Taiwan, and more. Meanwhile, Xi’s subordinates have slammed the Biden White House for intervening in what they consider as domestic Chinese affairs.
Biden voiced concerns about China’s human rights policies once again, according to the White House, and made clear that he wanted to “defend American workers and companies from the PRC’s unfair trade and economic tactics.” They also discussed critical regional issues such as North Korea, Afghanistan, and Iran.
As tensions between the United States and China have grown, both governments have faced growing obstacles in their own backyards.
Biden, whose poll numbers have been declining due to concerns about the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, inflation, and supply chain issues, was seeking for a point of balance on the most important foreign policy issue he faces.
Meanwhile, Xi is dealing with a COVID-19 comeback, severe energy shortages, and a potential housing catastrophe that Biden officials fear may unleash global market tremors.
“Right now, both China and the United States are in vital stages of growth,” Xi said. “Humanity lives in a global community, and we are facing many difficulties together.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and a few advisers joined the president in the Roosevelt Room for the video conference. In the East Hall of the Great Hall of the People, Xi was joined by communist party director Ding Xuexiang and a number of advisers.
“It’s the first time for us to meet electronically,” Xi told Biden, “but it’s not as nice as a face-to-face meeting.” The high-level diplomacy had a touch of viral Zoom meeting informality as the two leaders waved to each other as they spotted each other on the screen.
Biden had hoped to see Xi in person, but the Chinese president has not left the country since the coronavirus outbreak began. The White House proposed a virtual meeting as the next best thing to allow the two leaders to have an open and honest discussion about a variety of issues plaguing their relationship.
While it was lovely to see Biden, Xi stated that a virtual encounter was not “as good as a face-to-face meeting.”
China’s primary priority for the discussions, according to Chinese officials, will be Taiwan. Tensions have risen as the Chinese military has despatched an increasing number of fighter planes near Taiwan, which Beijing regards to be part of its territory. Chinese military personnel conducted drills near Taiwan last week in reaction to a legislative delegation from the United States visiting the island.
“The Taiwan problem affects China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as China’s basic interests,” Zhao Lijian, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said on Monday. “In China-US ties, it is the most crucial and delicate topic.”
Biden reaffirmed the United States’ long-standing “One China” policy, which acknowledges Beijing but allows for informal interactions and defense ties with Taipei, according to the White House. But, according to the White House, Biden made it plain that the US “strongly opposes unilateral moves to alter the status quo or jeopardize peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
With the Winter Olympics about to take place in Beijing in February and Xi poised to be authorized by Communist Party officials for a third term as president in 2023 — unprecedented in recent Chinese history — the Chinese leader may be attempting to stabilize the relationship in the near term.
“China and the US should respect one another, cohabit peacefully, and pursue win-win cooperation,” Xi added.
Despite his domestic issues, White House officials said that Biden was entering the summit in a strong position.
Biden signed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill into law earlier Monday, legislation to improve the nation’s failing infrastructure, which the Democrat contended is critical for the US to maintain a competitive advantage over China.
“Because of this law, American infrastructure investment will expand faster than China’s for the first time in 20 years,” Biden said during the signing ceremony. “Over the next decade, we will once again have the greatest roads, bridges, ports, and airports.”
Both leaders made references to their previous interactions with one another. Biden said the two have spent a “awful… amount of time” talking over the years and have never left each other “wondering what the other man is thinking.” According to a senior Biden administration source who briefed reporters following the meeting on the condition of anonymity, both leaders recalled things the other had said in previous meetings as they worked to refute and hammer home concerns.
When the then-vice president visited China in 2013, Xi referred to Biden as a “old friend,” while Biden spoke of their “relationship.” But now that both men are leaders of state, the public warmth has cooled. When asked by a reporter in June if he would urge his old buddy to help with a World Health Organization inquiry into the coronavirus’s origins, Biden reacted angrily.
Xi, on the other hand, seems to be interested in publicly resurrecting the warmth of their relationship’s early days, adding, “I am extremely delighted to meet my old buddy.”
The two sides have repeatedly swapped recriminations and the presidents’ senior aides have engaged in fruitless confrontations during the early stages of the Biden administration. However, there have been signs of progress.
At the United Nations climate negotiations in Glasgow, Scotland, last week, the United States and China vowed to enhance their collaboration and accelerate steps to reduce climate-damaging emissions.
Republicans have charged the Biden administration of neglecting to hold Beijing accountable on human rights in order to advance its climate agenda.
“By turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in order to pursue his political agenda, Biden has allowed China to threaten American security and the sovereignty of our allies while undermining the advancement of freedom around the world,” the Republican National Committee said in a statement released shortly before the leaders’ meeting began.
The White House has stated that cooperation on climate change is in China’s best interests, and that the two countries should work together on it despite their differences on other issues.
“What we do for one another isn’t a favor to any of our countries,” Biden said Xi, “but it’s just responsible international leadership.” “You and the United States are both big international leaders.”