When President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met over video link Monday, the two waved and Xi warmly greeted Biden as his “old friend.”
The exchange underlines the difficult positions of both leaders going into the meeting, the third time they have spoken since Biden took office in January, as relations between the two countries have nosedived. Biden, whose administration is struggling with inflation, new covid outbreaks and legislative setbacks, must not appear soft on China.
Xi, who faces an energy crisis and a slowing economy, is maneuvering for a controversial third term amid criticism that Beijing, under his watch, has become more isolated internationally.
“Both sides have real problems,” said Ja Ian Chong, an Asia security expert at the National University of Singapore. “It seems both sides don’t want tensions to get out of hand but are not willing to back down from their positions.”
The wide-ranging meeting, which lasted 3½ hours covering issues including climate change and Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, yielded few breakthroughs over the most contentious issues, such as Taiwan, trade and human rights. But it gave both sides a chance to telegraph their intentions and convey assurances that neither wants tensions to spiral into open conflict.
“They want to a put a floor under a deteriorating relationship. It’s gotten dangerously hostile and inadequate [in terms of] communication,” said Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California at San Diego. “The idea is to try to calm things down and prevent things from going from bad to worse.”
According to Xinhua, China’s official media agency, Xi told Biden that he was eager to “work with” the president to improve the relationship and offered some assurance that Beijing would not try to seize Taiwan by force. Xi said his country would do its “utmost” to achieve “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan, which the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) claims is a province of China despite never having governed the island.
During the virtual meeting, which the White House described as “respectful, straightforward and . . . open,” Biden told Xi it was their responsibility to make sure competition does not turn into conflict.
Chinese media were awash with news of the summit, with video blogs from state media journalists at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, where Xi and his team spoke to Biden, and commentary lauding the meeting as a sign of a new chapter of a more equal relationship with Washington.
In an interview with the People’s Daily, Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng summarized the achievements of the meeting, which he described as “candid, constructive and fruitful,” with a set of numbers, “3421” — referring to three principles and four priorities in the China-U.S. relationship, two points of consensus between the two countries on the importance of ties and avoiding a new Cold War, and one “important issue” that Xi addressed, which was Taiwan.
Xie said installing “guardrails,” as Biden suggested, would require “consultation on equal footing, agreed to and adhered to by both sides, rather than one side imposing conditions or demands on the other.”
“Putting out fire is certainly important,” he said, “but fire prevention is equally important.”
“The importance of the summit is that the two sides set the tone for the relationship. The summit is for both governments to clarify their respective bottom lines and prevent conflicts over the Taiwan issue,” said Shao Yuqun, director of the Institute for Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao Studies and a senior fellow of the Center for America Studies at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.
Despite the lofty calls for cooperation, the meeting exposed how far apart the two countries are on trade, technology and human rights. Biden raised questions about the suppression of minorities in the Xinjiang region and unfair trade practices, to which Xi said China would not tolerate interference in its internal affairs.
Xi urged the United States not to “politicize” the trade and economic relationship, saying Washington should stop “misusing” national security to suppress Chinese companies. He also blamed tension in the Taiwan Strait on U.S. support of Taiwan, warning that “whoever plays with fire will get burned.”
Observers say any improvement in ties is likely to be limited. Hours after the summit concluded, China released the text of a resolution on CCP history that cements Xi’s position as the core of the party. Unlike his predecessors, Xi is expected to stay in office for a third five-year term through 2027, if not longer.
“General Secretary Xi Jinping is really moving to consolidate power. I don’t think it’s a time that he wants to look weak. Even if there is some calibration, where it can go is quite limited,” said Chong.
After the meeting, Chinese state media stressed that Washington had expressed its opposition to Taiwan’s independence, while a summary from the White House said only that the United States remained committed to the one-China policy, supporting Beijing’s position that it is the sole legal government of China, and opposed efforts to change the status quo.
“I don’t think there was any progress. The differences between the two sides are still relatively large,” said Wu Xinbo, dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. He referred to Monday’s discussions of Taiwan and the South China Sea, home to competing territorial claims by China and its neighbors.
“Biden said he does not support Taiwan independence, but we feel that the United States is actually continuing to strengthen its relationship with Taiwan. Therefore, China is not very reassured of the U.S. statement,” Wu said.
In the video meeting, Xi said described the importance of maintaining the relationship, likening the two countries to ships at sea. “We must stabilize the rudder so the giant ships . . . will move forward against the wind and waves without yawing, stalling or colliding.”
That future may be marked by more regular contact between the leaders, where “skirmishes and proxy battles are fought at lower elevations,” said Jude Blanchette, who holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“This does not mark the end of hostilities, but rather the beginning of a new phase of competition,” he said.
Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, and Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.