Biden and Xi nearly meet amid strained US-China relations

US President Joe Biden opened his virtual meeting with China’s Xi Jinping on Monday by saying that their goal for the two world leaders should be to ensure that competition between the two superpowers does not degenerate into conflict.

Xi saluted Biden as his “old friend” and repeated his friendly tone in his opening remarks, saying, “China and the United States need to increase communication and cooperation.”

While the two leaders opened their meeting on cordial waves, they were meeting at a time of rising tensions in US-China relations. Biden has criticized Beijing for human rights abuses against Uyghurs in northwest China, suppression of democratic protests in Hong Kong, and military aggression on the autonomous island of Taiwan among others. Meanwhile, Xi’s deputies have criticized the Biden administration for interfering in what it sees as internal Chinese matters.

“It appears that our responsibility as leaders of China and the United States is to ensure that the competition between our two countries does not veer into conflict, whether intentional or unintentional, and not just simple and direct competition,” Biden said at the beginning of the conference. Meeting.

The two leaders know each other well, having traveled together when they were vice presidents.

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“I am willing to work with you, Mr. President, to build consensus, take effective steps and push Sino-US relations forward in a positive direction,” said Xi, who called Biden his “old friend.”

The President of the United States was joined in the Roosevelt Room for the video call by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and a few of his aides. Xi, for his part, was accompanied by Communist Party Director Ding Zuoxiang and a number of advisors.

The high-level diplomacy had a touch of the pandemic meeting informal zoom as the two leaders waved to each other as soon as they saw each other on screen.

Biden would have preferred to meet Xi in person, but the Chinese leader has not left his country since before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The White House has floated the idea of ​​a virtual meeting as the next best thing to allow the two leaders to have a candid conversation about the wide range of tensions in the relationship.

Taiwan is our top priority

Chinese officials said Taiwan would be their number one issue in the talks. Tensions have risen with the Chinese military sending a growing number of combat aircraft near the autonomous island of Taiwan, which Beijing considers part of its territory.

“The Taiwan issue concerns China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as China’s core interests,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Monday. It is the most important and sensitive issue in China-US relations.”

The White House said Biden would stick to the longstanding US “one China” policy, which recognizes Beijing but allows informal and defense ties with Taipei. Chinese military forces conducted exercises last week near Taiwan in response to a visit by a US congressional delegation to the island.

With Beijing preparing to host the Winter Olympics in February, and Communist Party leaders expected to agree to Xi to take over a third five-year term next year — unprecedented in modern Chinese history — the Chinese leader may look forward to stabilizing relations in China. in the near term.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki added that the “intensification of force” in China made talks between the two leaders necessary.

economic crises

Slowing economic growth and a brewing housing crisis loom large for Beijing.

“China and the United States should respect each other, coexist in peace, and seek … cooperation,” Xi said.

Meanwhile, Biden — who has seen his poll numbers dwindle at home amid concerns about the ongoing pandemic, inflation and supply chain problems — is looking to find a measure of balance on his most critical foreign policy issue.

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Despite his internal problems, White House officials made clear that Biden was approaching his meeting with Xi from a position of strength.

Earlier on Monday, Biden signed into law the $1 trillion American Infrastructure Act, legislation to modernize the country’s dilapidated infrastructure that the president said is critical for the United States as it seeks to retain a competitive advantage over China.

“Because of this law, next year will be the first year in 20 years that US investment in infrastructure will grow faster than in China,” Biden said. “We will again have better roads, bridges, ports and airports over the next decade.”

“pure business”

White House set low expectations for meeting with Xi; There were no major announcements or even a joint statement that was expected.

Biden suspended his relationship with Xi as evidence of his sincere belief that good foreign policy begins with building strong personal relationships.

The public warmth — Xi referred to Biden as his “old friend” when the then-Vice President visited China in 2013, while Biden spoke of their “friendship” — has waned now that both men are heads of state.

Biden and Xi were seen in Beijing in December 2013. (Lintao Zhang/Reuters)

Biden was furious in June when a reporter asked him if he would pressure his old friend to cooperate with a World Health Organization investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. “Let’s understand something: We know each other very well; we are not old friends,” Biden said. “It’s just pure business.”

However, Xi, at the beginning of the meeting, gave a nod to the warmth prevailing in the early days of their relationship, saying, “I am very happy to see my old friend.”

Biden said he expects the two to spend a lot of time discussing areas where there is a gap of differences, including human rights, the economy, and “ensuring the freedom and openness of the Indo-Pacific region.”

“We’ve always communicated with each other very honestly and candidly,” Biden said. “We never wonder what the other guy is thinking.”

The first nine months of the Biden administration were marked by recriminations and fruitless exchanges between the two presidents’ top advisers. But there are signs of thawing.

Last week, the United States and China at United Nations climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, pledged to increase their cooperation and accelerate action to curb climate-damaging emissions.

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Republicans have accused the Biden administration of failing to hold Beijing accountable for human rights in order to pursue its climate agenda.

“While turning a blind eye to human rights atrocities to pursue his political agenda, Biden has allowed China to threaten American security and the sovereignty of our allies, while undermining the progress of freedom around the world,” the Republican National Committee said in a statement. Shortly before the start of the leaders meeting.

The White House said it views cooperation on climate change as something that is in China’s interest, and is something the two countries should cooperate on despite differences over other aspects of the relationship.

“None of this is a service to either of our two countries, what we do to each other, but it is … responsible global leadership,” Biden told Xi. “You are a major world leader, and so is the United States.”

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