President Joe Biden opened his virtual meeting with China’s Xi Jinping on Monday by saying the goal of the two world leaders should be to ensure that competition between the superpowers “does not veer into conflict”.
Xi greeted the US president as his “old friend,” and echoed Biden’s cordial tone in his own opening remarks by saying that “China and the United States need to increase communication and cooperation”.
While the two leaders began their session with smiles and friendly waves, they were meeting at a time of mounting tensions in the US-China relationship.
Biden has criticized Beijing for human rights abuses against Uyghurs in northwest China, suppression of democratic protests in Hong Kong, military aggression against the self-ruled island of Taiwan, and more.
Xi’s deputies, meanwhile, have lashed out against the Biden White House for interfering in what they see as internal Chinese matters.
“It seems to be our responsibility as the leaders of China and the United States to ensure that the competition between our countries does not veer into conflict, whether intended or unintended, rather than simple, straightforward competition," Biden said at the start of the meeting.
The two leaders know each other well, having travelled together when both were vice presidents.
“I stand ready to work with you, Mr. President, to build consensus, take active steps and move China-US relations forward in a positive direction,” Xi said.
The US president was joined in the Roosevelt Room for the video call by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and several aides. Xi, for his part, was accompanied by communist party director Ding Xuexiang and a number of advisers.
Biden would have preferred to meet Xi in person, but the Chinese leader has not left his country since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The White House floated the idea of a virtual meeting as the next best thing to allow for the two leaders to have a candid conversation about a wide range of strains in the relationship.
Watch the full interview with Scott Lucas, professor of US Politics at the University of Birmingham, in the video player above.
Chinese officials said in advance that Taiwan would be their top issue for the talks.
Tensions have heightened as the Chinese military has dispatched an increasing number of fighter jets near the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which Beijing considers part of its territory.
“The Taiwan issue concerns China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as China’s core interest,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Monday. “It is the most important and sensitive issue in China-US relations.”
The White House said Biden will abide by the longstanding US “One China” policy, which recognizes Beijing but allows informal relations and defence ties with Taipei. Chinese military forces held exercises last week near Taiwan in response to a visit by a US congressional delegation to the island.
With Beijing set to host the Winter Olympics in February and Xi expected to be approved by Communist Party leaders to serve a third five-year term as president next year — unprecedented in recent Chinese history — the Chinese leader may be looking to stabilize the relationship in the near term.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki added that the “condensing of power” in China made the leader-to-leader conversations essential. Slowing economic growth and a brewing housing crisis also loom large for Beijing.
“China and the United States should respect each other, coexist in peace, and pursue ... cooperation," Xi said.
Earlier Monday, Biden signed into law a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, legislation designed to upgrade the nation’s crumbling infrastructure that the Democrat argued is crucial for the US as it seeks to retain a competitive edge over China.
The White House set low expectations for the meeting with Xi. No major announcements or even a joint statement were anticipated.
Biden said he expected the two would spend plenty of time discussing areas of difference, including human rights, economics, and “ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific”.
The first nine months of the Biden administration have been marked by the two sides trading recriminations and unproductive exchanges between the presidents’ top advisers. But there are signs of thawing.
Last week, both countries pledged to increase their cooperation and speed up action to rein in climate-damaging emissions at UN climate talks in Glasgow.
Republicans have accused the Biden administration of failing to hold Beijing accountable on human rights for the sake of pursuing its climate agenda.
The White House has said it views cooperation on climate change as something in China’s interest and a matter the two nations should cooperate on despite differences in other aspects of the relationship.
“None of this is a favour to either of our countries, what we do for one another, but it is ... responsible world leadership," Biden told Xi. “You’re a major world leader, so is the United States.”