Joe Biden will demand that China ‘play by the rules of the road’ when he holds his first presidential meeting with Xi Jinping today.
The President, who got to know Xi under the Obama administration, has previously touted their relationship as evidence of his belief that good foreign policy starts with building strong personal relationships.
But the fraught US-China relationship is at its lowest ebb in decades, with trust shredded by Beijing’s murky handling of Covid-19 and increased aggression towards Taiwan, as well as building up its nuclear arsenal.
Their virtual summit comes off the back of China – the world’s biggest polluter – making concerted efforts to water down the language of the COP26 climate agreement finalized in Glasgow last week.
White House officials have set low expectations for Monday’s virtual meeting: No major announcements are expected and there´s no plan for the customary joint statement by the two countries at the end.
Taiwan will be at the top of the agenda for both nations following massive incursions by Chinese warplanes into the island’s airspace, including 93 jets in a single weekend in October.
OLD FRIENDS: Joe Biden, who referred to President Xi Jinping as an ‘old friend’ in 2013, is holding a virtual summit with the Chinese leader on Monday
Xi Jinping, right, shakes hands with Vice President Joe Biden as they pose for photos at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, December 4, 2013
Xi Jinping eats a Hawaiian macadamia chocolate gifted by Governor of Hawaii, during a meeting with Joe Biden at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, February 17, 2012
CHINESE AGGRESSION TOWARDS TAIWAN: Taiwan will be at the top of the agenda for both nations following massive incursions by Chinese warplanes into the island’s airspace, including 93 jets in a single weekend in October.
CHINA’S NUCLEAR ARSENAL: China’s nuclear capabilities are growing at an alarming rate. Beijing tested a new hypersonic orbital missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead in August. The launch stunned experts who said the rocket is capable of striking anywhere on Earth from space in minutes – and would render US anti-missile defenses useless.
Washington and Beijing’s major sources of contention
Biden has accused China of ramping up military activity to intimidate self-ruled Taiwan, which Washington is required by law to provide with means to defend itself.
China, which claims the island as its own and has not ruled out using force to bring it under its control, has been concerned by U.S. moves to deepen ties with Taiwan and a statement by Biden that Washington would come to its defense.
The White House has stressed there has been no change in the U.S. policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ on whether it would defend Taiwan, but Secretary of State Antony Blinken further muddied the waters when he said Washington and its allies would take unspecified ‘action’ if China were to use force to alter the status quo.
In a telephone call with Blinken on Saturday, senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi said Washington should not send the wrong signals Biden and China’s Xi will hold virtual meeting to Taiwan pro-independence forces.
CHINA’S NUCLEAR ARSENAL
U.S. officials are increasingly concerned about China’s rapidly expanding nuclear arsenal and what they say was a very significant test of a hypersonic weapons system.
China has denounced a security pact Biden struck this year with Britain and Australia to provide the latter with nuclear-powered submarines and Washington’s expanding cooperation with fellow members of the so-called Quad grouping – Japan, India and Australia. Lower-level talks between military officials from Beijing and Washington have been aimed at easing tensions.
China is running far behind in its promises in a ‘Phase 1’ deal signed in 2020 to boost purchases of U.S. goods by $200 billion.
Beijing has not fully met promises to improve intellectual property protections and market access for U.S. agriculture biotechnology products and financial services, but wants tariffs set by former President Donald Trump lifted, arguing this could help both sides by easing inflation and boosting employment.
Tensions eased slightly after Meng Wanzhou, chief executive of Chinese tech giant Huawei, was allowed to returned home from Canada after a deal with U.S. prosecutors.
But a tech war continues to smolder, with Huawei, drone maker DJI, top chipmaker SMIC, and surveillance firm Hikvision still on a U.S. national security blacklist aimed at making it harder for US firms to share key technology with them.
Biden has neither revoked nor enforced a Trump executive order directing Chinese gaming company Bytedance to divest popular social media app TikTok in the United States.
Beijing will host February’s Winter Olympics and U.S. lawmakers have demanded a diplomatic boycott, over the charge that China is committing genocide against Uyghurs and other minority Muslims.
Last week, Blinken said Washington was talking to countries around the world about ‘how they’re thinking about participation,’ but left a deadline for a decision unclear.
The former Trump administration repeatedly blamed China for the outbreak of COVID-19.
A U.S. intelligence review released under Biden turned up no firm conclusions on the source of the virus, but some U.S. officials intelligence blame a leak from a laboratory in China.
U.S. officials say a better understanding of the origins could help end the pandemic and prepare for the next. Biden has said Beijing needs to co-operate more with international investigations. China has rejected such calls.
BELT AND ROAD vs Build Back Better
The meeting will come after Biden signs on Monday a $1-trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal that his administration believes will help the U.S. ‘out-compete’ China.
Biden has been working with member of the G7 grouping to launch an international infrastructure effort, Build Back Better World, or BBB3, to rival China’s Belt-and-Road initiative.
The island, separated from China by a 110-mile strait, is governed by a democratically elected president who Beijing refuses to recognize.
Xi has spoken of Taiwan rejoining the ‘motherland’ as an inevitability and he would go down in history if he were the leader that conquered the island.
The US leader will need to reassure his counterpart that Washington takes no stance on Taiwan’s sovereignty – the longstanding ‘One China’ policy – if he wants China to back off militarily.
America’s announcement of a new security alliance with Britain and Australia in September – the Aukus pact – has further increased tensions in the South China Sea.
A Chinese diplomat said that the agreement ‘seriously undermines regional peace and intensifies the arms race,’ while another called it ‘extremely irresponsible.’
As part of the deal, the US and the UK will supply nuclear submarine technology to the Australians.
It comes as China’s own nuclear capabilities are growing at an alarming rate.
Beijing tested a new hypersonic orbital missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead in August.
The launch stunned experts who said the rocket is capable of striking anywhere on Earth from space in minutes – and would render US anti-missile defenses useless.
The White House did not officially comment on the launch when it emerged last month but said that it was ‘watching closely.’
The litany of problems facing the US-China relationship means that Biden can only hoped to achieve so much.
‘When it comes to U.S.-China relations, the gaps are so big and the trend lines are so problematic that the personal touch can only go so far,’ said Matthew Goodman, who served as an Asia adviser on the National Security Council in the Barack Obama and George W. Bush administrations.
The public warmth – Xi referred to Biden as his ‘old friend’ when Biden visited China in 2013 while the then-U.S. vice president spoke of their ‘friendship’ – has cooled now that both men are heads of state.
Biden bristled in June when asked by a reporter if he would press his old friend to cooperate with a World Health Organization investigation into the coronavirus origins.
‘Let’s get something straight: We know each other well; we’re not old friends,’ Biden said. ‘It´s just pure business.’
Biden nonetheless believes a face-to-face meeting – even a virtual one like the two leaders will hold Monday evening – has its value.
‘He feels that the history of their relationship, having spent time with him, allows him to be quite candid as he has been in the past and he will continue to be,’ White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in previewing the encounter.
Biden and Xi, ages 78 and 68 respectively, first got to know each other on travels across the US and China when both were vice presidents, interactions that both leaders say left a lasting impression.
Monday’s meeting – the two leaders’ third engagement since Biden became president – comes amid mounting tensions in the U.S.-China relationship.
The two held long phone calls in February and September where they discussed human rights, trade, the pandemic and other issues.
Biden has made clear that he sees China as the United States’ greatest national security and economic competitor and has tried to reframe American foreign policy to reflect that belief.
Other U.S. presidents have held that bonding with a geopolitical adversary can be a good foreign policy strategy.
George W. Bush faced ridicule after his first meeting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin when he claimed that he had ‘looked the man in the eye’ and ‘was able to get a sense of his soul.’
Bush would go on to host the Russian leader at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and bring him to his father´s estate in Kennebunkport, Maine, where the 43rd and 41st presidents took the Russian president fishing.
Putin ultimately frustrated Bush and the relationship was broken after Russia´s 2008 invasion of its neighbor Georgia.
Donald Trump went from disparaging North Korea´s Kim Jong Un as ‘rocket man’ to declaring the two ‘fell in love’ in an exchange of letters as the U.S. president unsuccessfully attempted to persuade Kim to give up the regime´s nuclear weapons program.
Biden’s personal approach to foreign policy is in part informed by the fact that he´s been on the international scene for much of the last half-century, author Evan Osnos noted in the biography ‘Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now.’
Xi Jinping and Joe Biden walk down the red carpet on the tarmac during an arrival ceremony in Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, September 24, 2015
Xi Jinping and Joe Biden hold T-shirts students gave them at the International Studies Learning Center in South Gate, California, February 17, 2012
China, the US and Russia are engaged in a global arms race that now includes the development of hypersonic missile technology. Here, the MailOnline has compared (from left) each country’s main nuclear weapon, the latest hypersonic technology they have tested, their most up-to-date aircraft carriers, main battle tanks, and cutting-edge jets
‘You can drop him into Kazakhstan or Bahrain, it doesn´t matter – he´s gonna find some Joe Blow that he met 30 years ago who´s now running the place,’ Julianne Smith, a Biden adviser, told Osnos.
Some top Biden administration officials speculate that with Beijing planning to host the Winter Olympics in February and Xi preparing to be approved by Communist Party leaders to serve a third five-year term as president next October – unprecedented in recent Chinese history – that there’s plenty of reason for the Chinese leader to look to stabilize the relationship in the near term, according to a person familiar with administration thinking. The individual insisted on anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
Slowing economic growth and a brewing housing crisis also loom large for Beijing. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in a CBS’ ‘Face the Nation’ interview aired Sunday warned the deepening of Beijing’s problems could ‘have global consequences.’
At the same time, Biden, who has seen his polling numbers diminish at home amid concerns about the lingering coronavirus pandemic, inflation and supply chain problems, is looking to find a measure of equilibrium on the most consequential foreign policy matter he faces.
Biden would have preferred to hold an in-person meeting with Xi, but Xi has not left China since before the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The virtual meeting was proposed after Biden mentioned during a September phone call with the Chinese leader that he would like to be able to see Xi again.