Joe Biden and Xi Jinping held a virtual meeting recently. The world watched cautiously as the two clashing behemoths of the international, geopolitical stage discussed ways to scale down mutual mistrust and prevent potential clashes.
On Tuesday the Chinese president Xi Jinping met his American counterpart Joe Biden over a virtual meeting. Xi and his group of advisers spoke to Biden who was joined by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and a few more aides. This meeting comes in the midst of rising tensions between the two of the biggest powers in the world right now. Understandably, both countries and possibly everyone else who was following this summit closely had low expectations and high hopes from this meeting.
There was a marked tone of informality between the two presidents, and both sides carefully steered away from any acrimonious language. It was clear that both leaders meant to find some common ground to start dialing down the increasing animosity between the two. While neither of the two sides shirked from broaching important issues that have rankled their relations for about a year now, the two leaders were fairly successful in keeping the temperatures on both sides comfortably low.
The meeting follows the long phone call between Xi and Biden last September. Biden is believed to be the one who proposed a meeting. Xi and Biden’s relations go back to the days when both were vice-presidents. According to a White House statement, Biden insisted that they both meet in person once again. Xi Jinping hasn’t left China throughout the period of the pandemic. Consequently, a virtual summit was the next best option left to the leaders to come together and deal with the multiple issues that have been straining the Sino-American relationship for more than a year.
The US-China relationship has been on a steady decline since the Trump years. The then-president had imposed tariffs on Chinese goods citing Beijing’s unfair trading practices. His controversial “Chinese-virus” barbs during the pandemic wasn’t great for the already souring relations between the existing and the rising giant of the global stage. The US had also been complaining of technology theft, while China called out the US for trying to keep Chinese communications companies such as Huawei, out of US markets. There has also been a steady slew of barbs over the human rights situation in China.
The relations didn’t show signs of a thaw following the change of leadership in America. In fact, the US diplomat Wendy Sherman’s visit to Beijing last July was far from successful. The US climate Envoy John Kerry’s visit fared better than Sherman’s did.
The previous telephonic conversations between the presidents (February and September) were both long and cordial and touched upon several issues the countries could build on. And yet, the relations have remained frosty throughout, given the complexities of the current global, geopolitical scenario.
Issues discussed in the virtual summit:
Both leaders began the meeting by acknowledging the long and cordial personal history they have had with each other. Xi referred to Biden as an “old friend” and Biden reminisced the “awful…lot of time” the two have spent speaking to one another over the years. Post the pleasantries, Biden noted that the goal of both world leaders should ideally be to ensure that the inevitable competition between the superpowers “does not veer into conflict, whether intended or unintended.” Following this, the leaders and their aides discussed burning issues like Taiwan, trade, human rights, climate change, and regional issues like North Korea, Afghanistan, and Iran.
Taiwan has been the sorest point of friction between the two countries. With China flying fighter jets over Taiwanese skies and US sailing warships down the Taiwan strait, this region has been rather choppy and threateningly turbulent for the US, China, and the other countries in the area for a while now.
Xi made some strong and pointed comments on this issue. He noted that Taiwanese “independence forces” and those in America using such forces to contain China were the primary sources of tension in the region. He warned that both Taiwan and the US were playing with fire over the self-governing island that China considers part of its territory. He further reiterated China’s patience and its commitment to the “efforts to obtain peaceful unification.”
Both sides showed no signs of budging from their position on Taiwan, with Biden reiterating America’s commitment to the “one China policy” that recognizes Beijing as the legitimate government of China, but allows for simultaneous informal relations and defense ties with Taipei. Biden also responded by firmly stating the US “strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across Taiwan strait.”
Xi was also reminded of the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 that shaped the parameters of the US-Taiwan relationship. As a senator, Xi was a signatory to the act. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said in a webinar later on that the US made sure that Xi “understands deeply, firsthand, that the act makes clear that any effort to shape Taiwan’s future by other than peaceful means is of grave concern to the US.
President Biden touched upon the subject of the human rights situation in China “…more broadly.” Bye aired his concerns regarding Tibet, the Crackdown in Hong Kong, and the detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Xi responded to the issue by affirming China’s willingness to engage in “a human rights dialogue” on the basis of mutual respect. He added that his country did not appreciate the use of human rights to interfere in other countries’ domestic affairs.
Trade relations have long been an important wedge increasingly driving a wedge between the two economic superpowers. The Trump years were markedly acrimonious, with the US imposing sweeping tariffs and China crying foul over what it saw as an American ploy to keep big Chinese corporations out of American markets. The Huawei fiasco was yet another diplomatic and trade-relations disaster.
Xi said that Beijing was opposed to the “politicization of trade” and Washington’s use of the national-security ruse to block international market access for the Chinese companies.
While on the subject Biden sought protection for US companies and workers from what he called “unfair trade practices” within China.
Climate change has been one area where the two superpowers and the world’s greatest greenhouse gas emitters have found common ground in recent months. At the COP26 summit in Glasgow, the US and China managed to pull off a surprising diplomatic breakthrough by reaching a surprise agreement. Both nations agreed to increase mutual cooperation on controlling emissions to address the pressing issue of the global climate crisis.
Stressing the need for co-operation over climate change issues, Biden said that the two-nation should come together despite differences on other issues. “None of this is a favor to either of our countries — what we do for one another — but it’s just responsible world leadership”, Biden told Xi. “You’re a major world leader, and so is the United States.”