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Then-Vice President Biden meets with Chinese President Xi in Davos in January 2017. Photo: Xinhua/Lan Hongguang via Getty Images

President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping have reached an agreement "in principle" to hold a virtual meeting before the end of the year, according to a senior administration official.

Driving the news: The White House announcement followed a six-hour meeting today in Zurich between White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi.

Why it matters: The Biden administration views personal diplomacy between the two leaders to be key to managing the high-stakes, at times confrontational relationship between the U.S. and China.

Behind the scenes: The Zurich talks marked the most senior-level meeting between U.S. and Chinese officials since a frosty Alaska summit in March, where Yang publicly chided Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken for challenging Beijing on human rights and other issues.

  • A senior official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity said the meeting took on a "different tone than Anchorage," stressing that Sullivan and Yang were able to have a "candid" and "wide-ranging" discussion away from the usual "talking points."
  • The official called the Zurich meeting the "most in-depth conversation" that the Biden administration has had with China, characterizing it as an important step in providing a "foundation" to avoid miscalculations that could cause competition to veer into conflict.
  • Sullivan raised issues in which the U.S. and China have a mutual interest in cooperating — like climate change — as well as concerns over Beijing's human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and military activities in the South China Sea, the official said.

Zoom in: Asked for any single area where the U.S. and China were currently able to work productively or had made any tangible progress, however, the official did not name one.

  • China had previously told the Americans that if they want a more productive relationship, including on issues like climate change, they should stop criticizing Beijing's behavior.
  • Sullivan again raised the administration's position that climate change must be dealt with separately from other issues in the relationship, the official said, while cautioning: "I don't think he necessarily accepted our view."
  • "What we are trying to achieve is a steady state between the United States and China where we are able to compete intensely but to manage that competition responsibly," the official stressed.

The backstory: The U.S. proposed the virtual meeting because Xi does not intend to attend the G20 summit at the end of this month, so the leaders will likely not see each other in person for some time, the official said.

The big picture: President Biden spoke with China's President Xi Jinping in a 90-minute phone call last month in an attempt to "set guardrails" on the relationship, after Chinese officials snubbed and insulted their U.S. counterparts during lower-level meetings.

  • On Monday, the U.S. accused China of failing to live up to its commitments under Donald Trump's Phase One trade deal, and said it would maintain Trump-era tariffs while the two sides re-engage in trade talks.
  • Meanwhile, China flew a record number of warplanes through Taiwan's air defense identification zone over the weekend — prompting the island's defense minister to warn tensions with Beijing are at their worst in 40 years.

Go deeper

Ben Geman, author of Generate
Sep 22, 2021 - Energy & Environment

The road to COP26 gets slightly easier

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The bad diplomatic vibes heading into the critical United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, might be improving slightly.

Catch up fast: Chinese President Xi Jinping yesterday pledged to end overseas finance for building new coal-fired power plants and boost support for clean energy in developing nations.

UN climate summit faces serious roadblocks

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

When world leaders hold a climate summit in Glasgow in November, success will revolve around two issues that have sunk or slowed past negotiations:

  • How to help developing countries transition to clean energy and how to respond to "loss and damage" — the devastation caused by climate change.

What the initial UN Climate Summit attendance list reveals

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The UN Climate Summit set to begin Oct. 31 in Glasgow will bring an unprecedented combination of leaders for such an event (even Pope Francis!), and the likely absence of vital players — notably Chinese President Xi Jinping. 

Why it matters: The speeches and backroom meetings at COP26 between leaders on the summit's first two days will set the tone for the rest of the gathering. These will be moments when countries showcase any new pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions in order to meet the Paris Agreement's targets.