Biden and Xi Pause Saber Rattling for First Face-to-Face

Breakthroughs remain elusive, but both sides agreed on need to manage tensions.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Joe Biden participates in a virtual meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping
U.S. President Joe Biden participates in a virtual meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping
U.S. President Joe Biden participates in a virtual meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the White House in Washington on Nov. 15. Alex Wong/Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping didn’t produce any big breakthroughs in their more than three-hour virtual summit Monday evening, but they managed to lower the temperature in a bilateral relationship buffeted by rising tensions over Taiwan, trade, and security in the Indo-Pacific region.

The video meeting was the first opportunity for the two leaders to meet face to face, of sorts, since Biden took office. This helped facilitate a “different kind of conversation,” according to a senior Biden administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, who described discussions as “respectful, and straightforward and open.”

Biden “underscored that the United States will continue to stand up for its interests and values,” and raised a number of issues of concern including human rights, trade, and freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific, according to a White House statement. The two leaders also discussed areas of mutual interest including health security and climate change; last week at the big United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, China and the United States agreed to cooperate on new climate measures over the next decade, though neither offered any substantive details.

U.S. President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping didn’t produce any big breakthroughs in their more than three-hour virtual summit Monday evening, but they managed to lower the temperature in a bilateral relationship buffeted by rising tensions over Taiwan, trade, and security in the Indo-Pacific region.

The video meeting was the first opportunity for the two leaders to meet face to face, of sorts, since Biden took office. This helped facilitate a “different kind of conversation,” according to a senior Biden administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, who described discussions as “respectful, and straightforward and open.”

Biden “underscored that the United States will continue to stand up for its interests and values,” and raised a number of issues of concern including human rights, trade, and freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific, according to a White House statement. The two leaders also discussed areas of mutual interest including health security and climate change; last week at the big United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, China and the United States agreed to cooperate on new climate measures over the next decade, though neither offered any substantive details.

“What President Xi and President Biden really reinforced to one another at multiple points last night was that this relationship needs to be guided by consistent and regular leader-to-leader interaction,” Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said at an online event hosted by the Brookings Institution on Tuesday. Sullivan added that the dialogue between leaders should continue between senior officials from both countries.

At the meeting, Biden also underscored U.S. commitment to the “One China” policy, which recognizes Beijing as representing China rather than Taipei, while reiterating Washington’s opposition to any Chinese efforts to unilaterally change the status of the self-governed island of Taiwan, which has become a flash point in the relationship amid China’s increasingly aggressive military posturing in the Taiwan Strait. U.S. officials went into the call hoping to come out with some guardrails to prevent any escalation over the island, but the virtual summit didn’t produce any on Taiwan, the senior administration official said.

An extensive Chinese readout of the meeting appeared to blame Taiwan’s quest for American support for the rising cross-strait tensions, and it warned: “Whoever plays with fire will get burnt.”

One issue that was expected to arise but that did not is the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing. The United States has not yet signaled whether it will send a delegation to the games amid calls for a boycott over China’s mass incarceration of Muslims in the Xinjiang region, which the Biden administration determined constitutes a genocide.

Biden, who dialed into the call from the White House’s Roosevelt Room, was joined by senior foreign-policy aides including Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. Xi joined the call from the cavernous East Hall in China’s Great Hall of the People alongside Foreign Minister Wang Yi and top Communist Party officials. 

The virtual summit was not Biden and Xi’s first face-to-face meeting. As vice president a decade ago, Biden traveled through China with Xi at a markedly more optimistic moment in U.S.-China relations. ​​“If we get this relationship right, engender a new model, the possibilities are limitless,” Biden said on a 2013 visit to Beijing. In his opening remarks on Monday, Xi said that he was “very happy to see my old friend.” 

The meeting came as both leaders are focused on domestic challenges. Biden just signed into law a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, but he is still trying to pass a bumper social spending bill. Last week, a Chinese Communist Party plenum issued a “resolution on history,” elevating Xi’s status and paving the way for him to seek a third term in office next year. Despite Xi’s consolidated grip on power, experts say Chinese officials are looking to stabilize the international environment as they focus on domestic issues including skyrocketing energy prices and rising inflation.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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