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Biden, Xi hold virtual summit amid rising U.S.-China tensions

The two leaders met for the first time this year via video conference for a three-and-a-half-hour conversation that included discussion of Taiwan and human rights.
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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden met virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday night, in a conversation that the White House said did not result in any breakthroughs in the U.S.-China relationship but took a step toward managing a relationship that has been increasingly defined by hostility.

In a statement after the meeting, the White House said Biden raised concerns over Beijing's crackdown on Hong Kong's democracy movement, China's abuse of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang, as well as human rights more broadly.

The two leaders also discussed Taiwan at length. The White House said that Biden underscored the U.S. commitment to the "one China" policy but was direct about his concerns that Beijing's actions toward the self-ruling democracy were increasingly at odds with the status quo.

According to Chinese state media, Xi warned Biden that the U.S. was "playing with fire" on Taiwan and that while Beijing sought peaceful "reunification" with the island, it was prepared to take "resolute measures" against Taiwan independence.

In a call with reporters, a senior administration official described the meeting as "respectful," "straight-forward" and "open."

"The meeting itself was really about the two leaders discussing ways to manage the competition between the United States and China responsibly and ways to establish guardrails for that competition," the official said. "That was a theme throughout the conversation."

The Global Times, a state-backed Chinese tabloid, said the meeting "injected certainty" into the U.S.-China relationship and showed that while the two countries cannot avoid competition, there are also many areas for cooperation.

Biden had spoken with Xi over the phone twice since taking office, but Monday was the first time the two leaders met in a more formal setting. The White House had hoped to hold the meeting in person, but Xi has not left China since January 2020, when the coronavirus first began to spread.

"Meeting virtually is not quite the same as meeting in person, but it certainly was very different than just a phone call," the senior Biden administration official said. "The two leaders really did have a substantial back and forth and an ability to interact with one another."

Image: Joe Biden virtual meeting with Xi Jinping
President Joe Biden meets virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, on Nov. 15, 2021.Susan Walsh / AP

The U.S.-China relationship has grown increasingly tense over the past several years. The two countries launched a trade war under the Trump administration and Biden took a tough stance on China during his campaign for president, calling Xi a "thug." The Chinese leader has repeatedly celebrated what he argues is America's waning power, saying "the East is rising and the West is declining."

Biden and Xi, who spoke Monday through interpreters, shared conciliatory words as they sat down for their three-and-a-half-hour video conference.

"It seems to me our responsibility as leaders of China and the United States is to ensure that the competition between our countries does not veer into conflict, whether intended or unintended," Biden said in opening remarks, seated at a table in the Roosevelt Room.

Xi called Biden an "old friend" — the two leaders traveled together when they were both vice presidents — and said their countries need to "increase communication and cooperation."

"China and the United States should respect each other, coexist in peace and pursue win-win cooperation," Xi said from a room in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

Biden administration officials had downplayed expectations ahead of the meeting, telling reporters that the meeting was intended to open communication channels between the two leaders rather than produce any deliverables or specific outcomes.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier Monday that Biden felt he was walking into the meeting from a "position of strength" following his trip abroad last month to the Group of 20 summit in Rome and the U.N. climate conference in Scotland — neither of which Xi attended in person. Psaki said that the passage of the infrastructure bill, which Biden signed into law Monday afternoon, also strengthened the president's position.

"This infrastructure bill is essential and important for many reasons, but one of which is: For the first time in 20 years, we will be investing more in infrastructure than China," Psaki said.

In the call with reporters, the senior administration official said Biden pressed Xi to follow through on the "phase one" trade deal that China struck with the Trump administration. Biden also brought up the coronavirus pandemic and communicated the "important role that transparency plays" in addressing global health, the official said.

Xinhua, China's state-run news agency, said Xi told Biden that economic and trade relations between the U.S. and China were "mutually beneficial in nature" and should not be politicized. He said the U.S. "should stop abusing or overstretching the concept of national security to suppress Chinese businesses," in an apparent reference to restrictions imposed by the U.S. government on Chinese technology companies like Huawei.

The relationship between Beijing and Washington had a difficult start under the Biden administration after top diplomats from the U.S. and China had a public blowup in front of reporters during a meeting in Alaska in March. Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized Beijing over its increasing authoritarianism, while the Chinese Communist Party's foreign affairs chief, Yang Jiechi, accused Washington of hypocrisy on human rights.

Blinken and Yang both participated in Monday's meeting. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, as well as national security aides Kurt Campbell, Laura Rosenberger and Jon Czin also joined the meeting.

China is scheduled to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing in February. Rumors had been circulating that Xi would use Monday's meeting to invite Biden to attend the Games, but a senior administration official said the Olympics did not come up.