US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) traded strong warnings on the future of Taiwan at a virtual summit meant to establish “guardrails” against conflict between the rival superpowers.
The video-link summit, which took place late on Monday in Washington and early yesterday in Beijing, lasted a “longer-than-expected” three-and-a-half hours, a senior US official told reporters.
“The conversation was respectful and straightforward,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.
While the goal was to settle an increasingly volatile relationship between the giant economic and geopolitical competitors, tension over Taiwan loomed large.
Chinese state media reported after the summit that Xi cautioned Biden that encouraging Taiwanese independence would be “playing with fire.”
“Some people in the US intend to ‘use Taiwan to control China.’ This trend is very dangerous and is like playing with fire, and those who play with fire will get burned,” he was quoted as saying by Xinhua news agency.
The White House readout after the summit was considerably more measured, but between the lines, Biden’s pushback against Beijing’s increasingly aggressive posture toward Taiwan was clear.
“On Taiwan, President Biden underscored that the United States ... strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” the White House statement said.
The statement reiterated longstanding US policy that does not recognize Taiwan’s independence, but supports its defense.
There was “extended discussion of Taiwan” during the summit, the official said.
Biden also raised “concerns” over wider issues of human rights abuses and mass repression against the Uighurs in Xinjiang.
The White House emphasized it did not expect — or get — any concrete changes out of the summit. Rather, the goal was to build on earlier contacts with Xi to manage a relationship that is too big to fail.
Speaking from the White House to Xi on a television screen, Biden said it was their “responsibility as leaders of China and the United States to ensure that the competition between our countries does not veer into conflict, whether intended or unintended.”
“We need to establish some common sense guardrails,” he said.
Instead, the aim should be for “simple, straightforward competition,” Biden said, promising a “candid” discussion.
Xi called Biden “my old friend,” but said their countries had to work more closely.
“We face multiple challenges together. As the world’s two largest economies and permanent members of the UN Security Council, China and the United States need to increase communication and cooperation,” he said, speaking through an interpreter in brief public remarks, before they went behind closed doors.
Both leaders emphasized the need to work together on major global issues, especially COVID-19 and climate change.
“A sound and steady China-US relationship” is needed “for safeguarding a peaceful and stable international environment,” Xi said.
Analysts do not see any definitive impact from the meeting.
“It appears they exchanged views about everything under the sun, but announced no decisions or policy steps,” said Scott Kennedy, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Perhaps that will be revealed in the coming days, but if not, this ended up being a recitation of both sides’ basic positions. They seem to agree that the relationship needs to have some guardrails and stability, but they don’t agree about how to get there,” he said.
Daniel Russel, who served as the top US diplomat for Asia under former US president Barack Obama and is now with the Asia Society think tank, said it had taken 10 months for the leaders to get to the point of face-to-face talks, albeit held virtually, and suggested more could be coming.
“We should think of this not as a one-off sort-of-summit, but as one in a series of important conversations that can steer the relationship on a steadier course while the two sides continue to furiously compete,” he said.
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