United States President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping on Tuesday agreed on the need to “responsibly” manage a competitive relationship but did not arrive at any significant breakthrough on any of the thorny issues that have led to increasingly confrontational ties.
The two leaders on Tuesday morning (Monday evening in Washington) spoke for over three hours in their first virtual summit, convened from the Roosevelt Room in the White House and the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
Mr. Xi greeted Mr. Biden as an “old friend” while the U.S. President noted that the two, from their time as Vice Presidents, had “spent an awful lot of time talking to one another” and had “never been that formal with one another”.
The change in tone was obvious from a March meeting in Alaska between senior officials that saw accusations traded in front of the cameras and marked a turbulent start to the Biden administration’s engagement with China. But pleasantries aside, both sides essentially reinforced their positions on many of the core issues that have strained the relationship.
Any headway on these issues would have been a surprise, with expectations ahead of the summit focused firmly on what a senior U.S. administration official had described as discussing “guardrails” rather than on any specific deliverables.
The main takeaway was a mutual recognition of the need to manage competition amid differences. Mr. Biden called for “common sense guardrails to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict,” the White House said, although its readout did not detail the nature of these measures beyond saying the two leaders talked about how the two sides could continue to engage on a number of areas. The U.S. President also underlined the “importance of managing competition responsibly.”
Mr. Xi, for his part, said “mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation” should be the “three principles” guiding ties, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in its readout. He said the two countries “need to treat each other as equals” and that “no conflict and no confrontation is a line that both sides must hold.” “Drawing ideological lines or dividing the world into different camps or rival groups,” he said, "will only make the world suffer”, calling on the U.S. “to meet its word of not seeking a ‘new Cold War’, with concrete actions.”
The unanswered question was how both sides would “responsibly manage” differences when neither appeared to give ground on any of them. The Chinese President said on the one hand that “the key is to manage [differences] constructively so that they don’t magnify or exacerbate” but added that “China will certainly defend its sovereignty, security and development interests.” He added that it was “important that the U.S. properly handle the relevant issues with prudence.”
Top of those issues is Taiwan. Mr. Biden said the U.S. “strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait”. He also “discussed the importance of a free and open Indo-Pacific, and communicated the continued determination of the United States to uphold our commitments in the region,” the White House said, highlighting the “importance of freedom of navigation and safe overflight to the region’s prosperity.”
Mr. Biden, in effect, said that the U.S. was committed to the status quo from its side on Taiwan, by underlining the country’s commitment to the “one China” policy, the Taiwan Relations Act, the three Joint Communiques and the Six Assurances. Under its one China policy, Washington recognises Beijing alone as the formal government of China, but under the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. will support Taiwan if it is attacked by Beijing.
Mr. Xi, in contrast, referred to what he called “the true status quo of the Taiwan question” which was that “there is but one China in the world and Taiwan is part of China.” “We have patience and will strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification with utmost sincerity and efforts,” he said. “That said, should the separatist forces for Taiwan independence provoke us, force our hands or even cross the red line, we will be compelled to take resolute measures.”
Mr. Biden also raised “concerns” on China’s actions in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong and human rights issues more broadly, which brought a response from Mr. Xi saying that “democracy is not mass produced with a uniform model” and “dismissing forms of democracy that are different from one’s own is in itself undemocratic.” “China is ready to have dialogues on human rights on the basis of mutual respect,” he said, “but we oppose using human rights to meddle in other countries’ internal affairs.”
Both flagged climate change as one area of cooperation, coming after a recent agreement announced by the two countries at COP26. In his opening remarks, Mr. Biden said the two countries ought to work together where interests aligned, highlighting climate change, while Mr. Xi said climate chane “can well become a new highlight of cooperation.”