On Nov. 14, President Joe Biden sat with China’s leader Xi Jinping in their first in-person encounter since the 2020 election. In previous teleconferences between the leaders, little was accomplished. But the bar for these talks practically scraped the ground, suggesting the goal was to establish an understanding of the hot buttons, “the red lines.” Their three-hour, closed-door discussion took place before the G20 meeting of the world’s major economies.
After the obligatory handshake photo op, the talks appeared to be all business. Biden began, “As the leaders of our two nations we share responsibility, in my view, that China and the United States can manage our differences, prevent competition to becoming anything near conflict, and to find ways to work together on urgent global issues that require our mutual cooperation.” The obtuse Xi response: “At this time and age great changes are unfolding in ways like never before. Humanity are [sic] confronted with unprecedented challenges. The world has come to a crossroads. The world expects that China and the United States will properly handle the relationship.”
No Joint Statement From Biden and Xi
Following the meeting, there was no joint statement of areas of agreement or common interests. Instead, as in the past, Beijing state media described how the People’s Republic of China (PRC) characterized the talks. In contrast, Biden stepped to a riser to address the press in a small courtyard, talking about previous meetings in Egypt and Cambodia, with a political comment about the midterm elections, punctuated with a jab at “deniers” and followed with a gratuitous explanation about world interests in the US contests. Then, he waded through how the United States will meet its climate change emissions targets under the Paris Climate Accords, an international agreement former President Donald Trump withdrew from and about which, based on current polls, few Americans care.
Finally, the president got to what the reporters were waiting for, the Biden-Xi talks. “We had an open and candid conversation about our intentions and priorities,” asserting that the United States wanted to promote international “rules of the road” and compete with the PRC “vigorously” without conflict. Regarding Taiwan, Biden reiterated the One China policy, though on numerous public occasions he has contradicted it.
Many believe the commander-in-chief has been anything but clear as to where America stands on defending Taiwan. Nonetheless, Xi is not confused. “The Taiwan question is at the very core of China’s core interests, the bedrock of the political foundation of China-U.S. relations, and the first red line that must not be crossed in China-U.S. relations,” he warned Biden, according to China’s state media news agency Xinhua. “Anyone that seeks to split Taiwan from China will be violating the fundamental interests of the Chinese nation,” Xi said, adding that the Chinese people will absolutely not let that happen.
Beijing’s Take on Talks Troubling
What is troubling regarding the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) media account of the meeting is the list of policy concessions it extracted from the US president’s remarks. Xinhua said Biden agreed that the United States doesn’t support Taiwan’s independence and does not support two Chinas, declaring “the US side has no intention to seek ‘de-coupling’ from China, to halt China’s economic development, or to contain China.” That interpretation weakens the competitive position of the United States in the eyes of global onlookers. Does Biden not see the PRC as a present threat to US economic prominence in the world?
During the Q&A, Ken Thomas from The Wall Street Journal asked, “Do you believe China is preparing, intending to invade Taiwan at some point?” Biden answered in a Neville Chamberlain-esque way, “I do not think there’s any imminent attempt on the part of China to invade Taiwan. And I made it clear that policy in Taiwan has not changed at all.” The problem is with the term “imminent.” Is the year 2023 imminent?
The press inquired if the president thought the PRC leader was confrontational or conciliatory and willing to compromise. He responded: “Neither. And, yes, I didn’t find him more confrontational and more conciliatory. And, uh, do I think he’s [Xi] willing to compromise on various issues? Yes, I think he understands that.” Biden did say he wanted to “manage the competition responsibly.”
Again, the talks ended with both sides agreeing to have their staffs continue discussions. China had halted them to protest Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last July.
Getting an accurate read from the Biden administration regarding these crucial international meetings is tricky. Biden always puts a happy face on his side, leaving Americans to wonder the exact parameters of the US “red lines.”
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
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