Updates on US-China relations
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Joe Biden suggested holding a face-to-face summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in a 90-minute call last week, but failed to secure a deal from his counterpart, leading some US officials to to conclude that Beijing continued to play hard with Washington. .
The US president proposed to Xi that the leaders hold the summit in an effort to break a deadlock in US-China relations, but several people briefed on the call said the Chinese leader did not accept it and instead insisted that Washington adopt a less strident tone towards Beijing.
The White House had described the call – which took place at Biden’s request seven months after their first phone conversation – as a chance to test whether Xi was ready to seriously engage after several diplomatic meetings between U.S. officials and Chinese have made little progress.
Five people briefed on the call said that although Xi had used less abrasive language than his senior diplomats had done this year, his overall message to Biden was that the United States must moderate its rhetoric.
Biden has taken a hard line on China, criticizing its treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, its crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, and its military activity around Taiwan. Beijing responded by accusing the Biden administration of interfering in China’s key strategic interests.
A sixth person familiar with the situation said Biden had proposed the summit as one of several possibilities for follow-up engagement with Xi, and that the US president did not expect an immediate response.
A US official briefed on the conversation said that while Xi was not committing to the idea of a summit, the White House believed this was in part due to concerns over Covid-19. Xi has not left China since visiting Myanmar in early 2020 before the outbreak of the pandemic.
The United States had considered the G20 meeting in Italy in October for a possible summit, but Chinese media suggested Xi may not attend. He will also not attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting this week in Tajikistan, where China, Russia, India, Pakistan and Central Asian countries will discuss Afghanistan.
Another person familiar with the Biden-Xi appeal said it was conceivable that the Chinese president just wouldn’t want to commit at this precise moment. Another person said it was possible for the two sides to agree on a video call – a step up from a phone call – during the G20 era. But three people said the United States was disappointed with Xi’s apparent lack of interest in a summit.
Chinese accounts of the appeal pointed out that it was initiated by Biden, and quoted Xi as saying that US policies had caused “serious hardship.” They also noted that the United States “looked forward to more discussions and cooperation” with China, in language that implied Washington was pushing harder for engagement than Beijing.
A day after the call, the Financial Times reported that Biden was considering allowing Taiwan to change the name of its office in the United States from Taipei Economic and Cultural Representation Office to “Taiwan Representative Office.” The report sparked an angry reaction from China, which fears such a name change will strengthen Taiwan’s claim to be a sovereign country.
Bonnie Glaser, a Chinese expert at the German Marshall Fund, said it was difficult to interpret Xi’s reluctance to hold a summit in person.
“It may be politically risky for Xi to engage with President Biden without any certainty that he can get anything from Biden. He can calculate that it is safer to have interactions during this time than lower levels, “Glaser said.” But there’s also the Covid factor, and we don’t know how much weight to attach to that. “
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