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U.S. President Joe Biden speaks virtually with Chinese leader Xi Jinping from the White House in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 15.JONATHAN ERNST/Reuters

U.S. President Joe Biden tried to balance confrontation and co-operation in his first face-to-face summit with China’s Xi Jinping since Mr. Biden’s inauguration in January.

Speaking via video link on Monday, Mr. Biden told his Chinese counterpart that he wanted to establish “guardrails” – an apparent reference to Washington’s contention that Beijing is increasingly violating international rules and norms.

“We need to establish some common-sense guardrails, especially on vital global issues like climate change,” Mr. Biden said, seated at a table in the Roosevelt Room of the West Wing, with Mr. Xi beamed in on a television screen. “We have a responsibility to the world, as well as to our people.”

Mr. Xi, through an interpreter, replied that both countries 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.

“China and the United States should respect each other, co-exist peacefully and pursue win-win co-operation,” he said. “I am ready to work with you to forge consensus.”

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International tension is rising over China’s increased bellicosity with Taiwan. Beijing has also come under criticism from geopolitical rivals for testing a hypersonic nuclear-capable missile. Some countries have accused China of regularly breaking free-trade rules, and there is mounting outcry over its mass internment of Uyghur people and its efforts to clamp down on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

The talk was expected to last about three hours. In addition to the two leaders, six top officials from both sides participated, including U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. On the Chinese side were Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Vice Premier Liu He and Ding Xuexiang, director of the general office of the CPC Central Committee.

The President reminded Mr. Xi early in the meeting that the pair had spent “an awful lot of time talking to each other” and developed an informal rapport when Mr. Biden was vice-president. He praised Mr. Xi for having “always communicated very honestly and candidly.”

But the White House made clear in a background briefing that Mr. Biden did not intend to take things back to the relatively non-confrontational Obama years. Rather, Mr. Biden planned to take Mr. Xi to task on China’s international rule-breaking and human rights record, a White House official told reporters. Mr. Biden wanted the meeting, the official said, because he felt it was easier to manage China and prevent military confrontation by keeping open the lines of communication.

Beijing struck a more hopeful tone.

Hua Chunying, assistant minister of foreign affairs, said ahead of the meeting that the world hoped for “positive results” that would put “China-U.S. relations back onto the right track of sound and steady development.”

Prior to Mr. Biden taking office, Beijing appeared keen for a reset in relations following the turbulent Donald Trump administration, during which Washington launched a trade war against China, accused Beijing of committing genocide against Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and sanctioned numerous top Chinese officials. Both countries also kicked out journalists. As tensions rose, the U.S. forced the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, and China forced the closure of the American consulate in Chengdu.

A meeting between top officials from both countries in March was not auspicious. During a brief session with the press before closed-door discussions began, Mr. Blinken and Chinese foreign affairs chief Yang Jiechi exchanged angry words, with Mr. Blinken accusing Beijing of threatening “the rules-based order that maintains global stability.”

In response, Mr. Yang said Washington was trying to “strangle China” and said Beijing would not “accept unwarranted accusations from the U.S. side.”

Talks between Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi have been far more cordial. A phone call in September ran long, with a Chinese readout of the meeting saying it involved “candid, in-depth and extensive strategic communication and exchanges on China-U.S. relations and relevant issues of mutual interest.”

Still, a more extensive meeting between the two men has been a long time coming. Every U.S. president since George H.W. Bush has met with their Chinese counterpart during their first year in office. Under Barack Obama and Mr. Trump, these meetings were held within three months of their respective inaugurations.

The delay this time around may have been due to Mr. Xi’s unwillingness to leave China during the coronavirus pandemic. He has not travelled abroad in two years, leading to criticism, including from Mr. Biden, over his absence from the COP26 summit in Glasgow this month.

Ahead of Monday’s bilateral summit, one issue was expected to dominate above all else: Taiwan.

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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.

Under Mr. Trump, 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.

Speaking to his counterpart Mr. Wang on Friday, Mr. Blinken “emphasized long-standing U.S. interest in peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and expressed concern regarding the PRC’s continued military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement.

Such pressure has ramped up considerably in the past year, as the cross-strait military balance has shifted in Beijing’s favour. Meanwhile, China’s crackdown in Hong Kong has put an end to any lingering Taiwanese support for peaceful unification. For their part, Chinese officials blame Taipei and Washington for changing the status quo, saying that U.S. support for Taiwan, including recent lobbying by Mr. Blinken for Taipei to participate at the United Nations, is tantamount to advocating for the island’s formal independence.

In an editorial over the weekend, the nationalist state-run Chinese tabloid Global Times said the “Taiwan question is the ultimate red line of China” and the “most likely flashpoint to trigger the confrontation between China and the U.S.”

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