“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 as the talks got underway around 8 p.m. ET, sitting at the head of the Roosevelt Room table as Xi’s visage was broadcast on a pair of television screens.
“Maybe I should start formally,” Biden went on, “although you and I have never been that formal with one another.”
Biden is fond of citing the dozens of hours and thousands of miles he clocked with Xi when both were serving as their country’s vice presidents. He’s claimed to have spent more time with the Chinese president than any other world leader.
“Although it’s not as good as a face-to-face meeting,” Xi said as the summit got underway, “I’m very happy to see my old friend.”
But things have changed since Biden, as he likes to recall, was dining with Xi on the Tibetan Plateau and describing the United States in one word: “possibilities.”
Now, the world’s two largest economies are engaged in fierce tensions on trade, military aggression and human rights. And Biden, who initiated Monday evening’s virtual summit, finds himself in a high-wire act with China’s most powerful leader in decades.
Saying he was looking forward to a “candid and forthright discussion,” Biden said he was expecting to discuss a wide-ranging and substantive agenda.
“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, speaking to Xi through a translator.
“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,” Biden went on, asking to communicate “honestly and directly” over the range of topics up for discussion.
“We never walk away wondering what the other man is thinking,” he said.
The talks Monday amounted to some of the most critical of Biden’s presidency, given the deteriorating ties between Washington and Beijing and the reality, acknowledged by administration officials, that managing the US relationship with China will amount to Biden’s most critical international objective.
“Our two countries are in a fundamentally different place with each other than we have been in the past,” a senior administration official said ahead of the meeting, which Biden had been preparing for with senior aides for several days. “It’s a multi-faceted dynamic, it’s complex and it does not have a historical parallel.”
White House officials believed a large South Lawn signing ceremony for a massive new public works package, which occurred a few hours before Biden’s virtual summit, signaled progress on the main underpinning of his foreign policy: proving democracies can deliver more effectively than autocracies like China. He planned to detail the new infrastructure package to Xi.
The fact the bill was passed with help from some Republicans — fulfilling Biden’s promise to work across party lines — helps sustain his pledge to prove democracies can work, according to the officials.
Yet he still entered the talks at a politically weakened moment. His party fared poorly in off-year elections this month in Virginia, and polls continue to show his approval rating at some of the lowest levels of his presidency.
That is in sharp contrast to Xi, whose consolidation of power in China was cemented last week when the Chinese Communist Party adopted a landmark resolution elevating him in stature to his two most powerful predecessors — Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Officials said the upgrading of Xi’s status only enhanced the imperative of a face-to-face with Biden.
Nearly every issue Biden is focused on, domestically and internationally, has a nexus to China. Supply chain issues that are driving inflation at home can be traced in part to shortages in Chinese plants. Combatting climate change requires buy-in from Xi, who has shown some willingness to partner with Biden on the issue. Managing global trouble-spots like North Korea and Iran each involves coordination with Beijing.
Taiwan, which has been a source of increased tension in recent months, was expected to be the top priority for Xi going into the talks, people familiar with the preparation for the meeting said. He was expected to stress to Biden the importance of the “One China” policy and say that any Chinese military actions around Taiwan have been prompted by US actions related to the island, including US naval exercises, the presence of US troops in Taiwan for training and visits from American lawmakers.
The virtual summit Monday was not expected to produce specific outcomes on those or any of the other myriad ways the US and China agree or disagree. Instead, US officials previewed a discussion meant to further expand lines of communication through “intense diplomacy” so the current state of “stiff competition” does not topple over unintentionally into conflict.
At lower levels, that “intense diplomacy” has begun producing results, according to US officials. After a rocky beginning at the start of the administration, captured when US and Chinese diplomats open sparred during a meeting in Alaska, American officials now say their Chinese counterparts had recently become more willing to engage in substantive discussions on a range of issues as the Xi-Biden meeting approached.
Biden is a fan of in-person meetings and complained early in his presidency that virtual summits — where foreign leaders are patched in on video screens — could not replicate the chemistry of sitting face-to-face. American officials say leader-to-leader meetings are even more important with Xi, whose inner circle has become smaller and smaller and who now wields a historic level of power.
Over the summer, aides were hopeful of setting up a meeting between the two men on the sidelines of this year’s Group of 20 summit in Rome. But Xi has not left China in nearly two years, partly over Covid-19 concerns. So Biden settled on a virtual summit instead as a way to advance his two previous phone conversations with Xi.
“There is something different about actually seeing someone physically, about the depth of the conversation you can have, versus just on a regular phone line,” said a senior administration official, who described different ways of preparing for a video conference compared to just a phone conversation.
Officials said they had been preparing Biden for three main areas of discussion in the meeting, which they expected to last several hours. (The men will speak through interpreters.)
First, Biden planned to spell out in broad terms his approach to China, which is rooted in a plan to compete more aggressively in technology and industrial policy while avoiding outright military conflict.
Second, he expected to be “direct and candid” in raising areas where the US and China do not agree, like human rights abuses against the Uyghur minority in the the western Xinjiang Provence or a military buildup in the South China Sea. Biden planned to tell Xi he expects him to follow internationally agreed-upon “rules of the road.”
And third, he hoped to discuss places where the US and China can cooperate, including on nuclear non-proliferation and climate change. The two countries recently surprised observers at the COP26 climate talks in Scotland with a joint pledge to cut emissions.
Officials acknowledged Xi could steer the conversation in other directions, including possibly inviting Biden to attend the upcoming Winter Olympic Games in Beijing (the White House has not said whether Biden would accept).
Xi was expected to address the two nations’ perceptions of each other to try to set the tone for future bilateral relations and meetings, according to people familiar with the meeting. In previous high-level meetings between US and Chinese officials, the US side raised the issue of how to manage a crisis or disputes; the Chinese were expected to raise this issue again with an emphasis on finding ways to manage disagreements before they become outright disputes.
What US officials hoped was for the two men to engage in a conversation that went beyond symbolic words and delved deeply into substance.
“President Biden knows that the competition between our two countries has global implications. As a global leader, he takes that seriously,” the official said. “But ultimately he is meeting with President Xi to protect the prosperity and security of the American people and people around the world.”
They said they didn’t expect Biden to raise the issue of easing tariffs, left over from the Trump administration, which some experts have said could help ease current inflation concerns. China has also not delivered yet on its promise to purchase $200 billion of American products, made as part of Trump’s trade agreement.
Ahead of the meeting, two dozen business groups called on the Biden administration to work toward removing tariffs on China to help ease historic inflation.
“These costs, compounded by other inflationary pressures, impose a significant burden on American businesses, farmers and families trying to recover from the effects of the pandemic,” the business groups wrote in the letter, which was signed by the US-China Business Council, the US Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and other trade groups.
This story has been updated with the beginning of the summit.