Xi and Biden talks offer hope for better relations but tensions remain

Xi and Biden talks offer hope for better relations but tensions remain

Beijing — China on Tuesday welcomed a virtual meeting between President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden, raising hopes of improving ties, while the United States was more muted about talks as the world’s two largest powers sought to ease tensions for more than a year.

The leaders appeared to put the rhetoric aside in their first formal meeting since Biden took office. Xi welcomed the US leader as his “old friend,” and Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the exchange was frank and constructive.

“If Sino-US relations cannot return to the past, they should face the future,” Zhao said, describing the meeting as “conducive to increasing positive expectations for US-China relations.”

However, the two sides have stuck to their positions on the issues separating Washington and Beijing, with Xi warning that the United States and Taiwan are playing with fire on the self-governing island claimed by China.

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The two countries aimed to end a sharp deterioration in relations that had accelerated under former US President Donald Trump and worsened since Biden became president in January. The video conference, which took place Tuesday morning in Beijing and Monday evening in Washington, lasted more than three hours.

Facing domestic pressures at home, both Biden and Xi seemed bent on bringing the temperature down in what for both sides is their most important — and often turbulent — relationship on the world stage.

Biden told Xi at the start of the meeting. “Just a simple and direct competition.”

The White House set low expectations for the meeting, and no major announcements or joint statement were made. However, White House officials said the two leaders had a substantive exchange.

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Xi welcomed the US president as his “old friend” and repeated Biden’s friendly tone in his opening remarks, saying, “China and the United States need to increase communication and cooperation.”

The positive tone sets a model for both countries trying to find common ground rather than finding fault with each other, whether on trade, climate change or geopolitical issues such as Afghanistan and North Korea, said Wang Huyao, head of the China Center. And Globalization Research Center in Beijing,

“I see this dialogue as a stabilizing factor for the bilateral relationship, and I do not expect this summit to take us back to the old days, but it will certainly stop the downward spiral,” he said.

Xi took a hard line on Taiwan, which Chinese officials have indicated will be the main issue for them in the talks. Tensions have risen with the Chinese military sending an increasing number of combat aircraft near the autonomous island, which Beijing considers part of its territory.

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The official Xinhua news agency said Xi blamed the tensions on Taiwan, which is seeking independence by relying on the United States and some on the American side by using Taiwan as a means of interfering in China.

“This is very dangerous, it is playing with fire, and those who play with fire will burn themselves,” the agency quoted Xi as saying.

And Chinese military forces conducted exercises last week near Taiwan in response to the visit of a delegation from the US Congress to the island.

The White House said Biden reiterated that the United States would adhere to the long-standing US “one China” policy, which recognizes Beijing but allows informal and defense ties with Taipei. The White House said Biden also made clear that the United States “strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

There has been no shortage of tension in the relationship since Biden stormed the White House in January and quickly criticized Beijing for human rights abuses against Uyghurs in northwest China, suppression of democratic protests in Hong Kong, military aggression on the autonomous island of Taiwan, and more. Meanwhile, Xi’s White House deputies have criticized Biden for meddling in what they see as internal Chinese affairs.

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The White House said in a statement that Biden had once again raised concerns about human rights practices in China, and made clear that he had sought “to protect American workers and industries from unfair trade and economic practices of the People’s Republic of China.” The two also talked about major regional challenges, including North Korea, Afghanistan and Iran.

With tensions rising between the United States and China, both leaders have also found themselves under the weight of growing challenges in their own backyards.

Biden, who has watched his poll numbers dwindle amid concerns about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, inflation and supply chain problems, has been looking to find a measure of balance on his most critical foreign policy issue.

Meanwhile, Xi faces a resurgence of the novel coronavirus, rampant energy shortages and a looming housing crisis that Biden officials fear could cause tremors in the global market.

The President of the United States was joined in the Roosevelt Room for the video call by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and a few of his aides. For his part, Xi, in the eastern hall of the Great Hall of the People, was accompanied by Communist Party Director Ding Zuoxiang and a number of advisors.

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The high-level diplomacy had a touch of an informal pandemic Zoom meeting where the two leaders waved to each other as soon as they saw each other on screen, with Xi telling Biden, “It’s the first time we’ve met virtually, although it’s not as good as a face-to-face meeting.”

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 has floated the idea of ​​a virtual meeting as the next best thing to allow the two leaders to have a candid conversation about the wide range of tensions in the relationship.

With Beijing preparing to host the Winter Olympics in February, and Communist Party leaders expected to agree to Xi to serve as party leader next year, and then a third term as president in 2023 – unprecedented in China’s modern history – the Chinese leader may look forward to it. The stability of the relationship in the short term.

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Both leaders gave nods to their history with the other. Biden noted that the two had had a “horrible…a long time” talking to each other over the years, and never walked away “questioning what the other guy was thinking.”

But the general warmth — Xi referred to Biden as his “old friend” when the then-Vice President visited China in 2013, while Biden spoke of their “friendship” — has cooled now that both men are heads of state. Biden was furious in June when a reporter asked him if he would pressure his old friend to cooperate with a World Health Organization investigation into the origins of the coronavirus.

However, Shi seemed interested in publicly reviving the warmth of the early days of their relationship, saying, “I’m so happy to see my old friend.”

Despite the tensions, there have been moments of progress in US-China relations over the past months.

Last week, the two countries at United Nations climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, pledged to increase their cooperation and accelerate action to curb climate-damaging emissions.

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The White House said it views cooperation on climate change as something that is in China’s interest, and is something the two countries should cooperate on despite differences over other aspects of the relationship.

“None of this is for the benefit of either of our countries – what we do to each other – but it’s just responsible global leadership,” Biden told Xi. “You are a major world leader, and so is the United States.”

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Madani reports from Washington, D.C. Associated Press writer Colin Long in Washington, D.C., contributed.

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