WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden met virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping Monday night, in a conversation that the White House said did not result in any breakthroughs in the U.S.-China relationship but took a step towards managing a relationship that has been increasingly defined by hostility.
In a statement following the meeting, the White House said that Biden raised concerns over Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s democracy movement, China’s abuse of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang, as well as human rights more broadly.
The two leaders also discussed Taiwan at length. The White House said that Biden underscored the U.S. commitment to the “one China” policy but was direct about his concerns that Beijing’s actions towards the self-ruling democracy were increasingly at odds with the status quo.
In a call with reporters, a senior administration official described the meeting as “respectful,” “straight-forward” and “open.”
“The meeting itself was really about the two leaders discussing ways to manage the competition between the United States and China responsibly and ways to establish guardrails for that competition,” the official said. “That was a theme throughout the conversation.”
Biden had spoken with Xi over the phone twice since taking office, but Monday marked the first time the two leaders met in a more formal setting. The White House had hoped to hold the meeting in person, but Xi has not left China since January 2020, when the coronavirus first began to spread.
“Meeting virtually is not quite the same as meeting in person, but it certainly was very different than just a phone call,” the senior Biden administration official said. “The two leaders really did have a substantial back and forth and an ability to interact with one another.”
The U.S.-China relationship has grown increasingly tense over the past several years. The two countries launched into a trade war under the Trump administration and Biden took a tough stance on China during his campaign for president, calling Xi a “thug.” The Chinese leader has repeatedly celebrated what he argues is America’s waning power, saying “the East is rising and the West is declining.”
Biden and Xi, who spoke to each other Monday through interpreters, shared conciliatory words as they sat down for their three-and-a-half-hour video conference.
“It seems to me our responsibility as leaders of China and the United States is to ensure that the competition between our countries does not veer into conflict, whether intended or unintended,” Biden said in opening remarks, seated at a table in the Roosevelt Room.
Xi called Biden an “old friend” — the two leaders traveled together when they were both vice presidents of their respective nations — and said their countries need to “increase communication and cooperation.”
“China and the United States should respect each other, coexist in peace and pursue win-win cooperation,” Xi said.
Biden administration officials had downplayed expectations ahead of the meeting, telling reporters that the meeting was intended to open communication channels between the two leaders rather than produce any deliverables or specific outcomes.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier Monday that Biden felt he was walking into the meeting from a “position of strength” following his trip abroad last month to the Group of 20 summit in Rome and the U.N. climate conference in Scotland — neither of which Xi attended in person. Psaki said that the passage of the infrastructure bill, which Biden signed into law Monday afternoon, also strengthened the president’s position.
“This infrastructure bill is essential and important for many reasons, but one of which is: For the first time in 20 years, we will be investing more in infrastructure than China,” Psaki said.
In the call with reporters, the senior administration official said Biden pressed Xi to follow through on the “phase one” trade deal that China struck with the Trump administration. Biden also brought up the coronavirus pandemic and communicated the “important role that transparency plays” in addressing global health, the official said.
The relationship between Beijing and Washington had a difficult start under the Biden administration after top diplomats from the U.S. and China had a public blowup in front of reporters during a meeting in Alaska in March. Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized Beijing over its increasing authoritarianism, while Chinese Communist Party foreign affairs chief Yang Jiechi accused Washington of hypocrisy on human rights.
Blinken and Yang both participated in Monday’s meeting. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, as well as national security aides Kurt Campbell, Laura Rosenberger and Jon Czin also joined the meeting.
China is scheduled to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Rumors had been circulating that Xi would use Monday’s meeting to invite Biden to attend the Games, but a senior administration official said the Olympics did not come up.