Nov 16, 2021 - World

Biden's meeting with Xi "substantive" but no breakthroughs

Illustration of two pixel-style stars, one stylized as a Chinese star and one stylized as an American star, sharing a chat bubble.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping held a wide-ranging and, at times, candid discussion in a virtual meeting that lasted for about three and half hours on Monday evening.

Why it matters: The meeting didn't produce any "deliverables," but it did bolster a sense of much-needed stability between the two countries.

  • "The conversation was respectful and straightforward and open," a senior administration official told reporters in a call after the meeting.
  • Biden and Xi discussed the "importance of managing competition responsibly," a theme that the Biden administration emphasized in the days leading up to the call.

Driving the news: The meeting was announced on the heels of a U.S.-China announcement at the COP26 climate summit last week, in which both countries pledged to take more aggressive measures to reduce carbon emissions.

  • The surprise joint statement was seen as a welcome step toward reducing tensions between the two superpowers, which have been at odds in recent months over sanctions, tech bans and military activity near Taiwan.
  • The Biden-Xi meeting was expected to build on that positive development, and that is how it turned out.

What they're saying: "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 his opening remarks. "[W]e need to establish some commonsense guardrails."

  • Xi said in his opening remarks: "A sound Chinese-U.S. relationship is required for advancing our two countries' respective development and for safeguarding a peaceful and stable international environment, including finding effective responses to global challenges, such as climate change .... and the COVID pandemic."

Details: Biden and Xi had an "extended discussion" about Taiwan in which Biden affirmed the U.S. commitment to its "One China" policy, the senior administration official said. The two leaders also talked about climate change, global health, energy, trade, Iran and Afghanistan.

  • "We were not expecting a breakthrough, there were none to report," the official said. Rather, the meeting was about maintaining a "steady state of affairs."
  • Biden brought up human rights at several points, a point of disagreement for the two leaders. "It's no secret that they have a real difference of world views," the official said.
  • Chinese state media characterized Xi's remarks as calling for stability in the relationship, saying the "giant ships" of the U.S. and China should not collide.

Background: Senior officials kept expectations low in advance of the meeting, stating in a Sunday call that the administration did not expect any "deliverables" and the call should be called a "virtual meeting" and not a summit.

  • Even so, officials in both the U.S. and China expressed hope ahead of the call that it could help ease tensions.
  • "The two leaders will discuss ways to responsibly manage the competition between the United States and the PRC, as well as ways to work together where our interests align," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement Friday.
  • Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said over the weekend that he hoped the meeting would "bring bilateral relations back onto the track of sound and steady development."

The big picture: Tensions between the U.S. and China have deepened over the past year amid a recognition that the two countries are likely entering a period of sustained rivalry.

  • Former President Trump's tough stance on China, especially in the final year of his presidency, collided with China's Communist Party hardliners, making cooperation between the two countries on issues of mutual interest almost impossible.
  • Biden has maintained many of his predecessor's policies, but he has also committed to making diplomacy work where possible — particularly on climate cooperation.

Between the lines: Craig Singleton, an adjunct fellow in the Foundation for Defense of Democracies' China Program, said like Biden, Xi "is facing an unprecedented number of domestic challenges — including a COVID-19 resurgence, rampant energy shortages, and a looming housing bubble burst."

  • "The last thing either Biden or Xi want right now is a major foreign policy crisis," Singleton said.
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