Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping have slurped noodles together in Beijing. They shared deep thoughts on America’s significance during an exchange on the Tibetan plateau. They’ve called out to American business leaders about developing genuine respect for each other.
The US president has upheld his relationship with Xi as a testament to his genuine belief that good foreign policy starts with building strong personal relationships.
But as the two leaders prepare for their first presidential meeting on Monday, the troubled US-China relationship shows that the strength of one of Biden’s greatest claimed strengths as a politician — the ability to connect — has its limits.
“When it comes to US-China relations, the gaps are so wide and the trendlines so problematic that the personal approach can only go so far,” said Matthew Goodman, who serves as an Asia adviser to the National Security Council in the United States. administrations of Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
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White House officials have set low expectations for Monday’s virtual meeting: No major announcements are expected and there is no plan for the two countries’ usual joint statement at the end, according to government officials.
Public heat — Xi called Biden his “old friend” when Biden visited China in 2013, while the then US vice president spoke of their “friendship” — has cooled now that both men are heads of state. Biden was upset in June when a reporter asked him if he would urge his old friend to cooperate in a World Health Organization investigation into the origin of the coronavirus.
“Let’s get things straight: we know each other well; we’re not old friends,” Biden said. “It’s just pure business.”
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Biden nevertheless believes that a face-to-face meeting — even a virtual one like the two leaders will hold Monday night — has its value.
“He believes that the history of their relationship, having spent time with him, allows him to be quite candid as he has been and will continue to be in the past,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement. preview of the meeting.
Biden and Xi, aged 78 and 68 respectively, first met while traveling through the US and China when both were vice presidents, interactions that both leaders say left a lasting impression.
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Lately, there have been signs that at least a partial thaw could take place after the Biden administration’s first nine months were marked by mutual accusations and unproductive exchanges between the presidents’ top advisers.
Last week, for example, the US and China pledged at UN climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, to step up their cooperation and accelerate action to contain climate-damaging emissions.
Monday’s meeting — the third meeting of the two leaders since Biden became president — comes amid mounting tensions in the US-China relationship. The two had lengthy phone calls in February and September to discuss human rights, trade, the pandemic and other issues.
Biden has made it clear that he sees China as the United States’ biggest national security and economic competitor and has sought to reformulate US foreign policy to reflect that belief.
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His government has held Beijing to account for committing human rights abuses against ethnic minorities in northwestern China, suppressing pro-democracy efforts in Hong Kong and resisting global pressure to fully cooperate with origin investigations. of the coronavirus pandemic.
Tensions have also risen as the Chinese military has launched more flights near the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which Beijing considers part of its territory.
Chinese officials have indicated that Taiwan will be a pinnacle of talks. Biden has made it clear that his administration will adhere to the long-standing US “One China” policy, which recognizes Beijing but allows informal and defense relations with Taipei. Chinese forces held exercises near Taiwan last week in response to a visit by a US congressional delegation to the island.
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The president plans, in part, to use the talk to underline the need to put “guardrails” in the relationship to ensure the two sides avoid “unintended conflicts” amid their fierce competition, according to a senior executive. government official who briefed reporters on the White House’s schedule for the meeting and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The official said the video call is expected to last “several hours”, adding that the White House was hopeful seeing the two leaders would give their conversation more depth than their two previous conversations this year.
Other US presidents have believed that linking up with a geopolitical adversary can be a good foreign policy strategy. George W. Bush was ridiculed after his first meeting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin when he claimed he “looked the man in the eye” and “was able to get a sense of soul”. Bush would receive the Russian leader at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and take him to his father’s estate in Kennebunkport, Maine, where the 43rd and 41st presidents took the Russian president out fishing.
Ultimately, Putin frustrated Bush and the relationship broke down after the Russian invasion of his neighbor Georgia in 2008.
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Donald Trump went from despising North Korea’s Kim Jong-un as a “missile man” to declaring the two “in love” in an exchange of letters when the US president unsuccessfully tried to persuade Kim to give up the regime’s nuclear weapons program.
Biden’s personal approach to foreign policy is motivated in part by the fact that he has been on the international stage for much of the past half-century, noted author Evan Osnos in the biography “Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now”. .”
“You can drop him off in Kazakhstan or Bahrain, it doesn’t matter — he’ll find a Joe Blow he met 30 years ago who now runs the business,” Julianne Smith, a Biden adviser, told Osnos.
With Beijing set to host the Winter Olympics in February and Xi expected to be approved by Communist Party leaders to serve a third five-year term as president next year — unprecedented in recent Chinese history — the Chinese leader wants to maybe stabilize the relationship in China. the short term.
Slowing economic growth and a looming housing crisis also threaten Beijing. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned in a CBS “Face the Nation” interview that aired Sunday that the worsening of Beijing’s problems could have “global consequences.”
At the same time, Biden, who has seen his polls dwindle at home amid concerns over the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, inflation and supply chain problems, is seeking some measure of balance in the most sweeping foreign policy issue he faces.
Biden would have preferred a face-to-face meeting with Xi, but Xi has not left China since before the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The virtual meeting was suggested after Biden said he would like to see Xi again during a September phone call with the Chinese leader.