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Biden and China's Xi strike a 'respectful' tone in video chat amid tension

President Biden participates in a virtual meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Roosevelt Room of the White House Monday.
Alex Wong
Getty Images
President Biden participates in a virtual meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Roosevelt Room of the White House Monday.

President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping talked by video link Monday night in an effort to dial down tensions that have eroded trust and raised the specter of conflict between the world's top two economies.

It was the first time since Biden took office 10 months ago that the two leaders had met face-to-face — albeit by video from nearly 7,000 miles apart — to try to find ways to coexist and keep an overtly competitive and at times acrimonious relationship from deteriorating.

A senior Biden administration official said the three-and-a-half hour dialogue was "respectful and straightforward and it was open."

In their opening remarks, both noted the importance of bilateral communication — Xi said there should be more of it and Biden said it should be candid. They also called for more cooperation.

"As I've said before, 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. Just simple, straightforward competition," Biden said.

"It seems to me we need to establish some common sense guardrails, to be clear and honest where we disagree and work together where our interests intersect, especially on vital global issues like climate change."

Xi said a "sound and steady" China-U.S. relationship is necessary for development, peace and stability, and for finding effective responses to global challenges, like climate change and the pandemic.

Calling Biden an "old friend," Xi said he stood ready to work with Biden "to build consensus, take active steps, and move the China-U.S. relationship forward in a positive direction."

The constructive language at the outset of the meeting marked a clear shift from the much more caustic tone struck in meetings earlier this year between U.S. and Chinese officials.

China-U.S. ties have been deeply strained since former President Donald Trump launched his trade war against China in 2018 and then unleashed a string of dramatic measures in his final year in office that included forcing the Chinese consulate in Houston to close.

The Biden administration has not backed away from the harder-edged approach pioneered by Trump — opting to leave the consulate closed, keep tariffs in place, and call out Beijing on issues like rights, hacking and threats to Taiwan.

Officials in China had hoped that tougher U.S. policies would end when Trump left office, and have been unhappy with the Biden administration's approach.

In meetings earlier this year, senior diplomats sparred over the framing of the relationship, with Chinese officials rejecting the Biden team's approach. After months of frosty interactions, U.S. officials said they were becoming frustrated by the lack of substantive engagement from Beijing.

In September, Biden invited Xi Jinping to a phone call to try to break the ice — their second since Biden took office. Monday's meeting was also initiated by the U.S. side, according to a senior Biden administration official.

Despite the more cordial atmosphere, Biden and Xi did engage in "healthy debate" about several issues where there are differences, according to the senior Biden administration official who briefed media on the condition of anonymity.

On Taiwan, the two had an "extended discussion," the official said.

Beijing considers the self-governed island a part of China to be brought back into the fold, by force if necessary. But Washington has voiced concern over recent military, diplomatic and economic steps its taken to apply pressure on Taiwan.

China's state news agency Xinhua cited Xi as saying if "Taiwan independence" forces take provocative moves or cross China's red lines, China will have to take "decisive measures."

More broadly, Xi said he hoped Biden would bring U.S. policy toward China back to a "rational and pragmatic track," Xinhua reported. The U.S. and China should respect each other's interests, rights and systems, and avoid playing a zero-sum game, he said.

And he likened China and the United States to two giant ships at sea, each needing to be steered steadily to avoid losing speed or colliding.

There was no joint statement and no formal "deliverables" from the meeting. The senior administration official said there was no expectation going into the summit that there would be any kind of breakthrough, or that it would be "a fundamental departure point."

"This was really about ... not only developing those ways to manage the competition responsibly but ensuring that as we go forward the United States and China have sort of a steady state of affairs," the official said.

The meeting between Xi and Biden comes less than a week after China's ruling Communist Party passed a resolution that analysts say makes it more likely that Xi will continue to rule as party boss beyond the normal term of 10 years. This will be formalized at a party congress in the second half of next year.

At the heart of the friction between China and the U.S. are differing views on what China's rise as a global economic and military power means, analysts say.

The party says China faces an unprecedented opportunity, one in which the East is rising and the West is declining. Biden, however, has said he wants to ensure that the U.S. can out-compete China and retain its standing as the global leader. Meanwhile, both sides talk of coexistence.

"The question is, kind of, what kind of coexistence?" said Susan Thornton, a former U.S. diplomat who's now a senior fellow at Yale University Law School's Paul Tsai China Center.

"They want a way to coexist with the U.S. where we're not going to come into conflict. But they also want to be able to protect and defend and advance their interests. And so that's the basic conundrum, right? Can China, as a more powerful state, continue to advance its interests without it being a zero-sum loss for the United States?"

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John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.