With a friendly greeting, President Joe Biden began his first meeting since taking office with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping before shifting quickly into a sober reflection on the challenges that divide the two nations.
“It seems to me that our responsibility as leaders of China and the United States is to ensure that the competition between our countries does not veer into conflict,” Biden said Monday as the two leaders spoke in a video call between Washington and Beijing. “Whether intended or unintended — just simple, straightforward competition.”
Biden emphasized that the countries need to establish “guardrails” to avoid conflict and work together where possible on issues such as climate change.
Xi also acknowledged the many issues between the two great powers and, as expected, defended his nation’s sovereignty against what Beijing has long perceived as American and international judgment and pressure.
“We should each run our domestic affairs well and, at the same time, shoulder our share of international responsibilities and work together to advance the noble cause of world peace and development,” Xi said. “This is a shared desire of the people of our two countries and around the world.”
The U.S. sees China as its strategic competitor, with Beijing making gains on its military and economic dominance around the world. The two are embroiled in diplomatic, legal, technological and economic disputes that are volatile and prone to escalation. There have been clashes over intellectual property and tariffs as well as regional flashpoints that could spiral into armed conflict, including in the Taiwan Strait and in the South China and East China seas.
The two leaders spoke publicly for about 10 minutes with the help of interpreters before beginning their closed meeting, which was supposed to stretch late into Monday night. The White House had said that the two would discuss a range of issues, and that Biden would be frank and direct.
“But he will also look for areas where we can work together and where there are areas where there is a cohesion of opportunity moving forward,” said Press Secretary Jen Psaki.
A senior administration official told reporters on background Sunday that “this meeting is about our ongoing efforts to responsibly manage the competition, not about agreeing to a specific deliverable or outcome.”
Biden is expected to raise human rights issues, including Beijing’s use of forced labor in its supply chain.
Many observers are pessimistic that the meeting will change the two countries’ relationship in a meaningful way.
“This not the Sunnylands summit,” said Patrick Cronin, the Asia-Pacific security chair at the Hudson Institute, referring to the 2013 meeting between then-President Barack Obama and Xi, at a retreat center in California, that placed the U.S.-China bilateral relationship on more solid footing and paved the way for nuclear diplomacy with North Korea. “The relationship has changed — it’s more precarious, it’s more tense,” Cronin said.
While both sides would like to avoid conflict, neither appears willing to back down on what it considers core values and interests — and many of them are simply incompatible.
“There is no evidence that either leader has fundamentally reconsidered his interest, his goals, his strategy,” said Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. “So, the leaders are searching for some sort of formula that meets each other’s minimal goals that will allow them to try to manage this competition, rather than have it escalate to conflict.”
Historian Jeremi Suri of the University of Texas at Austin observed that the peculiar logistics of a virtual meeting could have an impact.
“This might be the wave of the future, where one side doesn’t have to concede that ‘I will go to your home court,’” Suri said. “But instead, they’re both on their own home court. So I think this was actually a very good first step, where both leaders can feel that they’re in control.”
Washington and Beijing have secured a small positive step ahead of the meeting. At the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, earlier this month, the world’s two biggest CO2 emitters unexpectedly announced they would work together to slash emissions and meet regularly to address the climate crisis.
And, in what was likely an intentional sartorial signal between two leaders for whom every optical detail matters, Biden appeared Monday night wearing a tie of vivid red — considered an auspicious color in Chinese culture. Xi sported a tie in the signature blue of Biden’s Democratic Party.
Both Biden and Xi face strong domestic pressures that push them toward a more contentious relationship. A Pew Research poll shows 67% of Americans have “cold” feelings toward China on a “feeling thermometer.” Only 46% said the same in 2018.
With inflation soaring, 70% of Americans say the economy is in bad shape. Plus, their approval of Biden’s overall job performance is down to 41% and his handling of the economy overall is down to 39%, according to a recent Washington Post – ABC News poll.
These numbers are ominous signs for the Democrats ahead of the congressional midterm elections in 2022, where Biden and the party run the risk of losing their slim majority in the Senate and House of Representatives.
“No matter what he does about China, the Republicans will try to brand him as soft on China and as an appeaser, and so he has to watch that,” Daly said.
Meanwhile, Xi continues to consolidate power. Last week the Chinese Communist Party elevated Xi’s status to that of revered leader Mao Zedong and declared his leadership to be the “key to the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” paving the way for him to remain in office for a third term and possibly longer.
“Xi Jinping, having just been anointed a living historical figure … he is not going to back off and suddenly start making big concessions,” Cronin said.
A recent Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll found that 58% of Americans say that trade between the two nations does more to weaken U.S. national security, a big jump from the 33% who felt the same way in 2019.
The same poll shows that 40% of Americans say China is economically stronger than the U.S., with most respondents favoring increasing tariffs on products imported from China and significantly reducing trade between the two countries.
Besides the myriad tension points in the Biden-Xi virtual meeting, another thorny topic is the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
The White House has declined to comment on whether Biden would accept a personal invitation, which may be extended by Xi during their Monday meeting. Activists have called for a boycott of what they’ve labeled the “Genocide Games,” citing China’s human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other minorities.
Psaki did not say whether the two would discuss the Games, noting that it’s up to Xi.
“We don’t know if he will or will not,” she said. “And we’ll leave that to them to preview.”
The White House said that Biden and Xi will be speaking via interpreters and the meeting is expected to last several hours.
Paris Huang and Nike Ching contributed to the report.