The White House painted a rosy picture of President Biden‘s video summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, but it was only half as rosy as the portrayals by China‘s state-controlled media, which all but declared victory after Monday night’s highly anticipated meeting.
Beijing nailed down “red lines” for America to follow — including on Taiwan — according to one report, while another claimed Mr. Xi got assurances from Mr. Biden that America won’t “seek to change the Chinese system of government.”
Of course, analysts warn against believing China‘s propaganda. But there’s little question the reports underscore how strongly Beijing felt on Tuesday that it held the upper hand during the summit held amid mounting international concern over a possible brewing new Cold War between the world’s two most powerful economic superpowers.
The Biden administration’s official readout said a slate of issues got discussed Monday night, with Mr. Biden cautioning Mr. Xi about China‘s growing aggression toward the island democracy of Taiwan, while re-stating long-held U.S. positions on Taiwan‘s status. The president also raised concerns about Beijing’s treatment of Muslims and ethnic minorities in China‘s Xinjiang Province, and aggressive policies toward Hong Kong and Tibet.
Administration officials said the president raised concerns about “human rights more broadly.” But how aggressively Mr. Biden pushed on other fronts during the more than three-hour summit — with both leaders communicating through translators while surrounded by key aides — was not clear.
While China‘s military muscle-flexing and advancements — including its rapidly expanding nuclear arsenal and a recent test of a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile — have sparked major concern in the Pentagon in recent months, the White House readout made no mention of a specific discussion of China‘s nuclear arsenal and strategy.
The readout said broadly that Mr. Biden told Mr. Xi the U.S. will “stand up for its interests and values and, together with our allies and partners, ensure the rules of the road for the 21st century advance an international system that is free, open and fair.”
There was no mention of whether the president referenced ongoing U.S. efforts to rally India, Japan and Australia — the three other most powerful democracies of the Pacific — to collectively counter China‘s increasingly autocratic moves on the world stage, including what U.S. officials describe as Beijing‘s “mercantilist” and “predatory” Belt and Road global development initiative.
There also was no mention of the recent security pact the Biden administration struck with Britain and Australia that many have characterized as a clear effort by the three to collectively counter China. Chinese officials said Mr. Biden told Mr. Xi during their discussions that U.S. alliances being forged and strengthened in Asia were not aimed at China.
Chafing at recent U.S. moves under both the Trump and Biden administrations that Beijing interpreted as an aggressive push to contain China‘s rise, Chinese state media ran with its own interpretation of how things played out in the summit.
The lead article Tuesday on the website of the Global Times, a paper close to China‘s ruling Communist Party, declared Mr. Xi and Mr. Biden “agreed” on the “principle” of “rejecting a new Cold War and reaffirming the importance of China-U.S. relations.” The article cited experts as crediting Mr. Xi with “demonstrating Beijing‘s high-minded manner and full confidence in pushing Washington to correct mistakes that have led the bilateral relationship to deviate in recent years.”
It went on to cite a “palpable distrust toward the Biden administration given its past deeds and flip-flops on China policies,” and to assert that “the future” of the U.S.-China relationship “depends on how much the U.S. government could turn its promises into action.”
“Beijing drew up several red lines not only on matters related to sovereignty like the Taiwan question but also those concerning its social system and development path,” according to the Global Times article.
It also cited “experts” as saying China is now trying to “push the U.S. to correct and reset its problematic policy toward China, and this is China‘s new diplomatic stance ‘from the position of the strength’ and ‘on a fair and equal basis.’”
Clearing the air
The White House readout suggested the U.S. made its points forcefully, asserting that Mr. Biden “was clear” with Mr. Xi about the “need to protect American workers and industries from [China‘s] unfair trade and economic practices.”
“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.
“President Biden reiterated the importance of freedom of navigation and safe overflight to the region’s prosperity,” it said, adding that “on Taiwan, President Biden underscored that … the United States strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
Friction between the U.S. and China over Taiwan has been growing, with surging Chinese military incursions into Taiwan defensive air zone over the past year and revelations that American forces have been helping train Taiwanese troops.
Mr. Xi has signaled China‘s unwavering determination to one day to fully absorb Taiwan, and U.S. officials have warned that Beijing may be moving toward attempting to use force to achieve that end.
Mr. Xi took an aggressive posture on the issue on Monday night.
According to China‘s Xinhua News Agency, the Chinese leader blamed the tensions on Taiwan, claiming the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen has sought to attain independence from China through reliance on the U.S., and that some on the American side are trying to use Taiwan as a way to undercut China.
“This is extremely dangerous, it’s playing with fire, and [those who] play with fire will burn themselves,” Mr. Xi was quoted as saying by the agency.
U.S. military officials have also expressed growing concern over China‘s expanding nuclear weapons arsenal. A recent Pentagon report warned that China is on a path to more than doubling its arsenal over the coming years and could have 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027, and 1,000 by 2030.
While there was no specific mention of this in the White House readout of the Biden-Xi conference, the readout said Mr. Biden “underscored the importance of managing strategic risks” with China and “noted the need for common-sense guardrails” to ensure that U.S.-China “competition does not veer into conflict.”
Chinese officials eagerly praised the outcome of the summit, saying on Tuesday that Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi had a candid and constructive exchange that sent a strong signal to the world. The positive description of the meeting was in sharp contrast to heated exchanges between the two nations earlier this year. The talks appeared to mark what both sides hoped will be a cooling of tensions in relations, though major differences remain.
“If China-U.S. relations cannot return to the past, they should face the future,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on Tuesday.
The video conference between the two leaders and their senior aides was their first formal meeting since Mr. Biden took office in January.
Facing domestic pressures at home, both Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi seemed determined to lower the temperature in what for both sides is their most significant — and frequently turbulent — relationship on the global stage.
“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,” Mr. Biden told Mr. Xi at the start of their virtual meeting Monday. “Just simple, straightforward competition.”
The White House had set low expectations for the meeting, and no major announcements or even a joint statement was delivered. Still, White House officials said the two leaders had a substantive exchange.
Mr. Xi, who dealt with Mr. Biden when he was vice president in the Obama administration, greeted the U.S. president as his “old friend” and echoed Mr. Biden’s cordial tone in his own opening remarks, saying, “China and the United States need to increase communication and cooperation.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.