President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping were to meet Monday evening in a virtual summit that would put to the test the U.S. president’s philosophy that the two global superpowers – at odds over a slew of issues including Taiwan, trade and human rights – can compete without spiraling into military conflict.
Among the issues Biden planned to raise with Xi were Beijing’s recent “coercive and provocative behavior” toward Taiwan, human rights practices, and technology and cyberspace issues, according to a senior administration official. The two leaders were also set to discuss climate and health security.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday that Biden has “emphasized the need to come to this relationship, one, through the prism of competition, from a position of strength as it relates to what we’re doing at home.” The president, she added, “is coming into this meeting really from a position of strength,” especially compared with shortly after he took office.
Psaki touted Biden’s sweeping $1.2 trillion infrastructure measure – a campaign promise that he signed into law Monday on the White House South Lawn – noting that it marks the first time in 20 years that the United States “will be investing more in infrastructure than China, and that is going to strengthen our competition at home, in addition to putting millions of people to work.”
She also pointed to Biden’s recent trip abroad – to the Group of 20 summit in Rome and the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland – as an example of the president’s strategy for handling China through building the United States’ global alliances, especially with European partners.
“We have made enormous strides in building those relationships, including on the president’s trip just two weeks ago, where he had a range of conversations,” Psaki said.
Although U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods remain a point of tension between the two countries, the issue wasn’t expected to be on the agenda, said the senior administration official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity to preview the meeting.
Senior administration officials repeatedly played down expectations for the highly anticipated summit, saying there would be no specific outcomes or a joint statement from the two leaders after the meeting.
“This is about setting the terms, in our view, of an effective competition where we’re in a position to defend our values – which certainly will be part of the president’s conversation – and those of our allies and partners, and also discuss areas where we can work together,” Psaki told reporters Friday.
Underscoring some of the uncertainty about the goals of the virtual summit, Psaki declined to answer Monday whether Biden was considering a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. “We don’t know if [Xi] will or will not” bring up the Olympics during the call, she said.
Other top administration officials have held multiple conversations with their Chinese counterparts to prepare for the summit. On Saturday, for instance, Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressed Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, on rising tensions over Taiwan, expressing in a call concerns about Beijing’s “continued military, diplomatic and economic pressure” against the self-governing island.
Yet the United States and China have found common cause on climate, with the two countries – which lead the globe in emitting greenhouse gases – pledging last week at the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow to work together on slowing global warming.
The Chinese president recently tightened his grip on power in Beijing with a new resolution allowing him to stay in his role until at least 2027 – a development that U.S. officials said made the direct discussion between Biden and Xi on Monday all the more critical.
The meeting was scheduled to begin Monday at 7:45 p.m. Eastern time, and the senior administration official said it was expected to last “several hours.” The two would communicate via interpreters.
Monday’s virtual meeting between the two leaders would be the third direct conversation since Biden took office in January; the previous two discussions were over the phone, most recently on Sept. 9. Xi has not left China since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
The relationship between the two men stretches back nearly a decade, to when Biden was vice president under President Barack Obama. Psaki stressed that the leaders’ rapport allows Biden “a level of candor, to be direct, not to hold back.”
Xi, Psaki added, is someone with whom Biden “can raise directly areas where we have concern, whether it’s security issues, whether it’s economic issues, whether it is human rights issues, and he will certainly do that this evening during the call, but he will also look for areas where we can work together and where there are areas where there is a cohesion of opportunity moving forward.”
Still, Psaki made clear that the relationship has its limits. In 2013, during a trip Biden took to Asia, Xi welcomed the U.S. vice president as “my old friend” – a descriptor Biden rejected when asked about it in June, noting pointedly: “Let’s get something straight. We know each other well; we’re not old friends. It’s just pure business.”
Asked Monday about Biden’s June assessment, Psaki said she could confirm that the president “still does not consider him an old friend, so that remains consistent.”