Cordial tone, big US-China differences as Biden, Xi hold video summit

U.S. President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping held more than three hours of video summit talks in what officials from both rival powers described as an effort to manage competition and prevent escalation of tensions over trade, Taiwan and geopolitics.

With friction over a trade war, Beijing’s threat that it may invade democratic Taiwan, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s human rights record hanging over the first lengthy encounter since Biden took office in January, the two leaders opened their virtual meeting with a cordial tone.

“We’ve spent an awful lot of time talking to one another, and I hope we can have a candid conversation tonight as well,” Biden said from the White House as the talks started, a reference to the two men’s frequent meetings when both were vice-presidents of their countries a decade ago.

“As I’ve said before, it seems to me our responsibility as leaders of China and the United States is to ensure the competition between our two countries does not veer into conflict, either intended or unintended. Just simply straightforward competition,” he said.

“It seems to me we have to establish some common sense guardrails, to be clear and honest where we disagree and work together where our interests intersect,” added Biden, whose remarks were translated for Xi.

“Although it’s not as good as a face-to-face meeting,” Xi said from the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. “I’m very happy to see my old friend.”

In what White House officials later called a “healthy debate” in a “respectful and straightforward” tone in talks that  ran more than ran more than three-and-a-half hours, Biden raised U.S. concerns about human rights — including its handling of Tibet, Hong Kong and Xinjiang – as well as Taiwan and trade issues, the officials said.

The two leaders also discussed Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, world energy markets, trade, climate, and military issues, U.S. officials said.

A Chinese state media readout of the talks said Xi stressed China’s longstanding red line on Taiwan.

Xi said those in Taiwan who seek independence, and their backers in the United States, are “playing with fire,” according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.

“China is patient and seeks peaceful reunification with great sincerity and effort, but if Taiwan secessionists provoke, or even cross the red line, we will have to take decisive measures,” it reported,

China accuses Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) under president Tsai Ing-wen of promoting independence for the island. Tsai refuses to entertain Beijing’s claims, saying that the democratic, self-governing island’s 23 million people have no wish to live under Beijing’s authoritarian rule.

Biden restated its position that it officially recognizes Beijing rather than Taipei, while adding that Washington “strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” the White House said.

A Biden administration official later told reporters that Biden’s statement was not “something that’s particularly new or different” and follows established policy.

“This is something that … the United States has reiterated at various points over time,” the official told reporters.

“The meeting [was] wide-ranging, in-depth, candid, constructive, substantive and productive,” Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying wrote on Twitter. “It helps increase mutual understanding.”

Xi was joined in the virtual meeting by China’s Vice Premier Liu He, Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Vice Foreign Minister Xie Fen, along with other senior Chinese communist Party officials.

Flanking Biden on the U.S. side were Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, as well as three senior representatives from the National Security Council

“The meeting itself was really about the two leaders discussing ways to manage the competition between the United States and China responsibly,” a senior Biden administration official told reporters in a telephone briefing after the virtual meeting.

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