US, China get chance for cool-down with virtual summit

U.S. officials say the virtual meeting held by President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday wasn’t about easing tensions between the two countries.

But the day after Monday night’s nearly four-hour meeting, which went longer than expected, it was hard to escape the idea that the talks hadn’t at least served as a moment to deepen lines of communication between the two governments, which have been battling over Taiwan, China’s treatment of minorities and the coronavirus, among many other issues.

“I think that the meeting might well take down the temperature a little bit in terms of … the heated rhetoric we’ve seen from both sides,” said David Sacks, an expert on U.S.-China ties at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I don’t see it leading to a new trajectory or a reset of any kind in the relationship.”

There were no major breakthroughs during the meeting, but White House officials emphasized the importance of the talks in and of themselves. The talks followed a surprise development last week in which the U.S. and China reached an agreement on a joint pledge to tackle climate change at the U.N. COP26 summit in Glasgow.

That joint pledge helped pave the way for the virtual bilateral meeting.

“There is no substitute for direct, leader-to-leader engagement to prevent miscommunication about our goal and motives, our policies, and of course to give direction to our respective governments,” said White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan during remarks at the Brookings Institution Tuesday.

Biden told reporters in New Hampshire that his administration will set up four separate working groups to maintain a dialogue with China on “a whole range of issues.”

Sullivan signaled there would be follow-up conversations about the global energy supply, climate change and Taiwan.

Biden, who faces pressure from Republicans and Democrats alike to be tough with Beijing, raised contentious issues like Taiwan and human rights, the White House said.

But he also stressed the need for the U.S. and China to work together on pressing global issues like curbing climate change, defeating the coronavirus pandemic, and restoring the nuclear deal with Iran. 

In spite of the tensions, the engagement between Biden and Xi appeared pleasant — a departure from months in which both countries have traded jabs at one another.

Just two weeks ago, Biden sharply rebuked Xi for skipping the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, predicting that it would diminish Beijing’s global influence. 

Biden employed his personal touch during the meeting, mentioning at its start that he and Xi spent time together in China when both were vice presidents. 

Xi greeted Biden as his “old friend,” which Biden thanked him for, despite the White House insisting that Biden does not consider the Chinese leader to be a friend.

The “respectful and straightforward” conversation was a shift from earlier attempts by the Biden administration to open a dialogue with Chinese officials.

An initial meeting in Alaska among officials that included Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken was marred by allegations from the Chinese that the U.S. was bullying other nations after Sullivan said the relationship would be one of “stiff competition.”

Since those early conversations, China has grown more aggressive in flying military planes over Taiwan and it tested a hypersonic missile that got the attention of U.S. defense officials. Beijing has also stymied efforts by the U.S. and global groups to learn more about the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Biden administration has labeled China’s treatment of Muslim Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region “genocide,” and it may launch a “diplomatic boycott” of the Winter Olympics in China early next year, something that would raise tensions.

There also have been lingering economic tensions dating back to the Trump administration, which imposed tariffs in an escalating trade war, most of which remain in place today. 

With so much at stake, experts said the fact that Biden and Xi were able to sit down and talk for four hours could itself be viewed as something of a step forward.

“I think it was an important inflection point. We have a lot of differences between us, and the U.S. and China have a lot of differences between them. The leaders have to talk to each other about these things,” said Matt Goodman, senior vice president for economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“In hindsight, maybe it’ll be seen as a little more significant than people see it overnight,” added Goodman, who worked in the Obama administration.

Sullivan said Tuesday that both countries agreed to intensify their engagement on Taiwan, which officials said was a topic of extended conversation during the virtual meeting. Biden restated the administration’s commitment to the “one China” policy and reminded Xi that as a senator he voted for the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, a law committing the U.S. to provide Taiwan with arms for its defense, officials said. 

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the meeting would reduce the likelihood that the two countries could go to war over Taiwan.

“Priority number one has to be lowering the chances of war over Taiwan,” O’Hanlon said. “I think that he did succeed in that at least to the extent that misperception could have been a driver, as opposed to something else.”

Tags Antony Blinken Beijing Winter Olympics China Jake Sullivan Joe Biden Taiwan Uighur Muslims

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