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U.S. President Joe Biden meets virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping. U.S. President Joe Biden meets virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Washington, Nov. 15, 2021 (AP photo by Susan Walsh).

The Biden-Xi Summit Lowered the Temperature on U.S.-China Relations

Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021

The much-anticipated virtual summit Monday between U.S. President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, marked the most substantial exchange between the two leaders since Biden took office in January. The meeting, which ran overtime and lasted three and a half hours, followed two phone calls between Biden and Xi, in February and September. But apart from pledges to improve cooperation, the summit yielded no major breakthroughs between the two rivals, which remain at odds over a number of issues, including trade, human rights and a military buildup in the Asia-Pacific region.

Sitting among top government officials in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Xi kicked off the video conference on a positive note. “Today is the first time we have met by video,” he began. “I’m very happy to see my old friend.” Xi later called for “a sound and steady China-U.S. relationship,” where the two countries can coexist peacefully and cooperate on a range of global issues, including climate change and pandemic response efforts.

Echoing his remarks from a prerecorded video address to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit last Friday, the Chinese president called on Washington to take steps to show it is not, as Biden told the U.N. General Assembly in September, seeking a “new Cold War.” 

The two leaders also recounted stories of their numerous previous encounters and time spent together, when both served as their countries’ No. 2 officials, according to a senior U.S. administration official present for the discussions.

But the conversation took a more acrimonious turn when it moved to the substantive issues. Biden raised concerns about Taiwan’s status and human rights abuses of Uyghur minorities in Xinjiang, which Beijing deems as internal affairs that are off limits to the outside world. Also worth noting, the crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and civil liberties didn’t make it onto the agenda. 

Stating Beijing’s position on the question of Taiwan, Xi warned that China will take resolute action “if separatist forces provoke us, force our hands or even cross the red line,” according to the Chinese state outlet Xinhua News Agency. “Such moves are extremely dangerous, just like playing with fire. Whoever plays with fire will get burnt,” he stressed.

Biden also did not shy away from addressing broader tensions in the bilateral relationship, while emphasizing the need to establish “common sense guardrails.” “Our responsibility as leaders of China and the United States is to ensure the competition between our two countries does not veer into conflict, either intended or unintended,” he said during the virtual summit.

“Both leaders are dissatisfied with the state of the relationship and the behavior of the other country,” Danny Russel, a former assistant secretary of state who participated in leader-level talks during the Obama administration, told The New York Times. “Both are also mindful of the risk of an incident between our militaries that could quickly spin out of control.”


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Prior to the meeting, Washington sought to lower expectations for its outcome by suggesting there would be “no deliverables.” In the end, the lack of any concrete agreement or initiatives reflects the deep divides between Beijing and Washington. The two sides did not even cobble together a joint statement or settle on a date for further talks, underscoring the major ideological differences that appear likely to dominate bilateral relations for the foreseeable future. But the difference in tone—if not on the issues—is already a marked improvement from a year ago, when relations between the two countries were at their worst. The two sides’ diplomats sparred publicly with one another as recently as February, during their first high-level meeting after Biden’s inauguration.

Also encouraging is the fact that negotiations between the two leaders’ deputies prior to the summit delivered some modest results. Even if they did not involve core issues of trade and supply chain woes, these small concessions spelled some good news. Responding to demands by the U.S. business community to ease China’s pandemic-related travel restrictions, Xi agreed to fast-track entry arrangements for visiting U.S. executives. In a move underscoring that pledge, Jamie Dimon, the chairman and CEO of JP Morgan Chase, was allowed to skip Hong Kong’s 21-day quarantine and fly straight to mainland China after a brief visit Monday. The two sides also reached an agreement on easing restrictions for visiting journalists from both countries. 

As Ali Wyne, an analyst with the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, told The New York Times, “both countries want to bring down the temperature. They both recognize that the threshold between intensifying competition and unconstrained rivalry is tenuous.”

In Other News

Activists, advocacy groups and dozens of lawmakers from 20 countries have opposed the nomination of a Chinese official to join the governing body of the International Criminal Police Organization, or Interpol, amid fears that Beijing could use the global policing organization to pursue dissidents abroad. Hu Binchen, a deputy general in China’s Ministry of Public Security, is among three candidates vying for vacant seats on Interpol’s executive committee. “Having a Chinese official at Interpol would be like putting the fox in charge of the hen house,” human rights campaigner Bill Browder told The Sydney Morning Herald.

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Mere hours after the Biden-Xi virtual summit, the Chinese Communist Party unveiled the full text of its “historic resolution,” which was passed by senior party officials at the Central Committee’s Sixth Plenary Session last week. The document elevated Xi to the position of a transformational leader essential to ensuring China’s rise. It also warned that the country must remain tough in the face of challenges. “Constant retreat will only bring bullying from those who grab a yard if you give an inch,” reads an excerpt from the resolution. “Making concessions to get our way will only draw us into more humiliating straits.”

Worth a Read

Chris Horton writes in The Atlantic about the growing willingness of many countries to sidestep China’s concerns about outside interference in Taiwan, due mainly to Beijing’s belligerence over the issue. Using the popularity of the hit song, Fragile, which mocked Chinese censors and Beijing’s rhetoric on Taiwan, as one of many examples, he looked at how China’s aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy has backfired and inadvertently boosted Taiwan’s international profile.

Rachel Cheung is a freelance reporter based in Hong Kong. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and Nikkei Asian Review, among other news outlets, and she was previously a reporter at the culture desk of South China Morning Post.

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