A video summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping was short on tangible results but does seem to have helped dampen tensions between the world’s two superpowers after relations sank to their lowest point in decades.
Washington had warned ahead of the call against expecting too much from it. Briefing reporters after Biden and Xi wrapped up, a senior U.S. administration official, who spoke anonymously as per conditions of the background call with the National Security Council, said “we were not expecting a breakthrough and there are none to report.”
Despite this, the official was positive about the meeting, saying the two leaders engaged in a “substantial back and forth” and that the “conversation was respectful, straightforward and open.”
China’s vice-foreign minister, Xie Feng, said, “the meeting was candid, in-depth, constructive and productive,” adding it has “charted the course and injected new impetus into the growth of the two countries’ relations in the years to come.”
“If you were after a reset in superpower relations, albeit at a low-level of policy engagement, then the Biden-Xi summit was a success,” said Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia, and author of Xi Jinping: The Backlash. “I think China still feels it is negotiating from a position of strength – the tactical retreat into a period of stability is largely driven by Xi’s onerous domestic agenda over the next 12 months.”
Mr. Xi is expected to seek an unprecedented third term in office when Communist leaders meet for the 20th Party Congress in November next year. The delicate politics of such an event have supercharged Beijing’s already keen focus on maintaining domestic stability, even as Mr. Xi has faced increasing international pushback to his aggressive foreign policy.
In preliminary remarks that were open to the press, Mr. Xi said the U.S. and China needed to “step up communication and co-operation” and described Mr. Biden as an “old friend” as he pushed for Washington to soften the tougher stance it has taken with Beijing in recent years.
Mr. Biden said he wanted to establish “common-sense guardrails, to be clear and honest where we disagree, and work together where our interests intersect.”
“Our responsibility as leaders … is to ensure that the competition between our countries does not veer into conflict, whether intended or unintended,” Mr. Biden said. “Just simple, straightforward competition.”
Following the call, the first time Mr. Xi and Mr. Biden have spoken face to face since the latter took office in January, Chinese officials and state media were notably positive, with less of the “wolf warrior” style criticisms of Washington that have become the norm in recent years.
The biggest single issue on the call — as was predicted ahead of time — appears to have been Taiwan.
China has flown repeated sorties around the edge of Taiwanese airspace this year, and sabre-rattling in state media reached such a fever point this month that Beijing had to issue a statement denying domestic rumours of an impending invasion, after people began stockpiling essential goods. Beijing claims Taiwan as its territory, though the Communist Party has never controlled it and Taiwanese overwhelmingly reject the idea of unification, forced or otherwise.
During President Donald Trump’s administration, Washington ramped up engagement with Taipei, a trend Mr. Biden has largely maintained, even as he has sought — with little success — to reassure Beijing that the U.S. does not seek any change to the status quo. According to the State Department, Washington acknowledges “the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China,” while maintaining a “robust unofficial relationship” with Taipei and opposing any attempts by Beijing to annex the island by force.
According to a White House readout of the call, Mr. Biden “underscored that the United States remains committed to the ‘one China’ policy” and “strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
Mr. Xi largely blamed Taipei for increased tensions, saying the authorities have “repeatedly attempted to ‘rely on the U.S. for independence,’ while some in the U.S. intend to ‘use Taiwan to dominate China.’ ”
“Such moves are extremely dangerous, just like playing with fire,” he said, according to state media. Whoever plays with fire will get burnt.”
Speaking to reporters, Mr. Xie, the vice-foreign minister, said Beijing is “willing to strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification with the utmost sincerity and utmost efforts.”
“But if the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces provoke and force us or even cross the red line, we will have to take decisive measures,” he said. “There is no room for China to compromise on an issue that concerns China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Chinese officials claimed Mr. Biden said he “does not support Taiwan independence,” a line that was not included in the White House readout. Asked about this point on the call with reporters, the senior U.S. official said that independence is “not something that the United States supports,” and that Mr. Biden’s reported comment did not represent “anything particularly new or different policy-wise.”
Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi had an “extended discussion” about Taiwan, but “there was nothing new established in terms of guard rails or other understandings,” the official said.
Mr. Biden has faced some criticism from China hawks in Washington for not taking a stronger line with Beijing, even as he has staked out a far tougher policy than that pursued during the Obama years. Though White House officials had been keen to emphasize Mr. Biden’s willingness to challenge Mr. Xi, the relatively soft and cordial tone of the readouts and the brief conversation on camera may give ammunition to the U.S. President’s critics ahead of crucial midterm elections next year.
Anti-China sentiment has become increasingly bipartisan in both Washington and the wider U.S. According to a Gallup poll conducted in February this year, 45 per cent of respondents viewed China as America’s greatest enemy, a more than 100-per-cent increase on the previous year. A Pew Research Centre poll around the same time found that that 89 per cent of American adults consider China as a “competitor or enemy” of the U.S.
While the senior U.S. official said “human rights came up at various points throughout the conversation multiple times,” the White House readout includes only passing references to Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, where Beijing has been cracking down heavily in recent years. Campaigners have been pressing for the U.S. to boycott the Beijing 2022 Olympics over these issues, though Washington has indicated it has no intention of doing so.
Prior to the video summit, it had been reported that Mr. Xi might invite Mr. Biden to the Olympics, creating an awkward situation for the U.S. leader. The senior administration official, however, said “the Olympics did not come up.”
It is unclear whether an invitation was ever actually mooted, or if the Chinese leader decided not to embarrass his counterpart by extending an invitation Mr. Biden would likely have had to refuse.
Mr. Xi first met Mr. Biden almost a decade ago, and is well accustomed to dealing with U.S. presidents, tailoring his approach to their individual styles: such as when Mr. Trump was treated to a lavish dinner in the Forbidden City during a trip to Beijing.
“Biden is Xi’s third U.S. president,” said Mr. McGregor, the Lowy Institute analyst. “He is no doubt already calculating the landscape ahead when he will likely be dealing with a fourth.”
Alexandra Li contributed a report
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