Online summit meant to establish ‘guardrails’ for U.S.-China relations

Xinhua via AP
Chinese President Xi Jinping, right and U.S. President Joe Biden meet via video link on Tuesday.

WASHINGTON/BEIJING — The leaders of the United States and China confirmed in an online meeting Tuesday that they will maintain communication to prevent unintended clashes from occurring, but their confrontational relationship remains unchanged with no concrete path to easing tensions.

This high-profile “first meeting” began in a relaxed atmosphere that gave no sign of the United States and China’s fierce struggle for supremacy. U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping greeted each other with a wave through the large screens in front of them, after which they spoke with smiling faces for about 11 minutes in front of the press.

At one point, Xi said, “I’m very happy to see my old friend,” and Biden thanked him in reply.

Xinhua via AP
Chinese President Xi Jinping, fourth from right, waves to U.S. President Joe Biden via video link from Beijing on Tuesday.

With the conflict between the United States and China continuing to intensify, Biden’s main goal in the meeting was to build “common-sense guardrails” to manage the competition between the two nations and avoid unintended clashes. “I think it’s important we communicate honestly and directly to one another about our priorities and our intentions,” the U.S. president said.

Xi responded that China and the United States need to “shoulder their share of international responsibilities, and work together to advance the noble cause of world peace and development.” In a conciliatory manner, he expressed his readiness “to build consensus and take active steps to move China-U.S. relations forward in a positive direction.”

The Biden administration had been seeking a meeting with Xi since around this summer. As Xi continues to build his one-man power structure, Biden decided it was necessary to have direct dialogue with Xi rather than negotiate at the administrative level. Their talk took place immediately after an important meeting of the Chinese Communist Party concluded on Nov. 11, further solidifying Xi’s internal base.

A senior U.S. official said that since Xi had consolidated power in himself, it was essential for the leaders to engage with each other to facilitate communication between their two governments.

The official media in China provided unparalleled coverage, presenting the start and end of the talks as breaking news. The Xi administration has actively worked to stabilize its situation overseas, and apparently wants to emphasize the outcome of the meeting.

As China’s relationship with the United States — which China regards as its most important bilateral tie — has continued to deteriorate, the United States has been cooperating with other countries to encircle China and decouple the U.S. and Chinese economies, a situation that will affect China’s medium- to long-term development.

Xi has his sights set on a long-term administration, and is being forced to rebuild relations with the United States as soon as possible to avoid criticism for his diplomatic missteps.

Although Tuesday’s meeting established a foothold for improvement, however, there has been no change in the basic structure of the relationship between the United States and China, in which the two countries threaten each other’s security and are opposed in terms of values. Improving the relationship will not be easy.

A former U.S. State Department official was critical of the Biden administration, saying it was wrong to believe that it can manage relations by talking with Xi and engaging with China. To change China’s behavior, actions, not words, were needed to make China pay for its behavior, the official said.

The Xi administration is also unable to compromise with Washington on various issues because of hard-line public opinion online toward the United States. China will inevitably continue to strengthen its military power in an effort to unify China and Taiwan, meaning the U.S.-China relationship will remain always on the brink of conflict.