President Joe Biden of the United States and Chinese President Xi Jinping met for three and a half hours on Tuesday, the first virtual bilateral meeting of the two leaders since Biden assumed office in January this year.
Biden joined from the White House; Xi from the Great Hall in Beijing. The US President took the initiative for the summit, in sync with America’s concern that it should try to prevent military engagement with China.
The two leaders had spoken twice by telephone earlier this year, but there had been no formal summit before Tuesday’s meeting.
What happened at the meeting?
Statements issued afterward showed clear divergences in the positions taken by the two sides.
Biden spoke about violations of human rights by China, and Beijing’s trade policy. “President Biden raised concerns about the PRC’s practices in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, as well as human rights more broadly,” the White House said in a statement.
“He was clear about the need to protect American workers and industries from the PRC’s unfair trade and economic practices,” it said.
Biden also “discussed the importance of a free and open Indo-Pacific, and communicated the continued determination of the United States to uphold [US] commitments in the region. [He] reiterated the importance of freedom of navigation and safe overflight to the region’s prosperity,” the US readout said.
On the hot-button issue of Taiwan, the readout said Biden had underscored that the “United States remains committed to the ‘one China’ policy, guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the three Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurances”, and it “strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait”.
President Xi on his part raised the issue of US support to Taiwan, and of alliances and groupings that created “divisions” in the world. This was a reference to the Quad grouping, which includes India, and the AUKUS deal among Australia, UK and US to deliver nuclear-powered submarines to Canberra.
Chinese state media reported Xi as having said: “We are patient and are willing to strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification [of Taiwan with China] with the utmost sincerity… But China will have to take resolute measures if the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces provoke, compel or even cross the red line.”
“It is playing with fire, and if you play with fire, you will get burned,” the Chinese readout quoted Xi as having warned.
So, was the meeting a forum for two of the world’s most powerful men to vent their anger against each other?
Although there was no agreement or joint communique, the meeting was an opportunity to keep “communication lines open,” according to the White House statement.
Biden said, “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.”
He also talked about a mechanism to deal with crises.
“It seems to me we need to establish some commonsense guardrails, to be clear and honest where we disagree, and work together where our interests intersect, especially on vital global issues like climate change,” Biden said.
President Xi in turn said: “China and the United States should respect each other, coexist in peace, and pursue win-win cooperation. I stand ready to work with you, Mr President, to build consensus, take active steps, and move China-US relations forward in a positive direction.
“Doing so would advance the interests of our two peoples and meet the expectation of the international community.”
Biden recalled that Xi and he had “spent an awful lot of time talking to each other” going back to the time when he was Vice President, and Xi was an important figure in the Chinese leadership.
Xi said: “Although it’s not as good as a face-to-face meeting, I’m very happy to see my old friend.”
The first face-to-face meeting between American and Chinese officials in Alaska in March had witnessed a public exchange of accusations. From that point, Tuesday’s meeting did mark an effort at dialling down rhetoric.
How is India looking at the Biden-Xi meeting?
A US-China talks process is something that India watches very closely.
India and China have been locked in a border standoff for more than a year and half now, New Delhi is part of the Quad, and its strategic alignment with the US has been very clear and categorical.
US administrations under both Presidents Trump and Biden have viewed China as a strategic rival.