A screen in a restaurant in Beijing shows Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden meeting via video link. Picture: Reuters/Tingshu Wang
A screen in a restaurant in Beijing shows Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden meeting via video link. Picture: Reuters/Tingshu Wang

Washington — Joe Biden and Xi Jinping spoke of the need for co-operation in their first face-to-face virtual summit, with both sides aiming to stabilise the US-China relationship while downplaying expectations for major breakthroughs.

The video conference got under way about 8pm on Monday night in Washington, hours after Biden signed bipartisan infrastructure legislation into law, and ended after more than three hours.

The two leaders “conducted full and in-depth communication and exchange on strategic, comprehensive and fundamental issues”, China’s state-run CCTV said. 

CCTV reported that Xi said the earth is large enough to accommodate the development of both the US and China, adding that both countries should “not engage in winners and losers”. It also quoted Biden saying the US does not seek to change China’s political system and does not support Taiwan independence, restating US policy.

The Biden administration has yet to brief reporters. 

“I look forward to a candid and forthright discussion,” Biden told Xi at the start of the summit, adding that they had a responsibility is to ensure that competition between the countries does not veer into conflict. The US leader said he planned to discuss human rights, economics and “ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific”.

Susan Shirk, research professor and chair of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, discusses the virtual meeting between the leaders of the world's most powerful nations.

“It seems to me we need to establish some commonsense guardrails, to be clear and honest where we disagree, and work together where our interests intersect, especially on vital global issues like climate change,” Biden told Xi. 

Xi started his remarks by calling Biden an “old friend” while saying the US and China “need to increase communication and co-operation”. The two nations should work to find effective responses to global challenges including climate change and the pandemic, Xi said. 

“China and the United States should respect each other, coexist in peace, and pursue win-win co-operation,” Xi said, adding that they should work “to build consensus, take active steps and move China-US relations forward in a positive direction.”

Investors were watching to see if the summit helps defuse tensions that have built up between the world’s two biggest economies over a wide range of issues, including tariffs, sanctions and human rights. As the summit got under way, the onshore yuan rose as much as 0.3% to approach the strongest level since 2018. The currency fluctuated within a tight range over the past month.

The White House had framed the discussion as Biden’s effort to set the terms of the relationship, with a particular focus on avoiding unintended conflict. Besides mentioning human rights and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, the president also planned to raise China’s non-market economic practices, such as industrial subsidies, though trade issues will not dominate the conversation, US officials said. 

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on Monday that relations are at a “critical crossroads” and Beijing hopes they will return “to the right track of healthy and steady development”. Xi may also press Biden to clarify US strategy towards Taiwan, a self-governed island which Beijing considers part of its territory. 

Xi comes to the summit in a strong position politically, having cleared a major hurdle last week to securing a third term as Communist Party chief next year. The consolidation of power in China makes it only more pressing for Biden to engage Xi in a leader-to-leader conversation, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday.

The Biden administration consulted allies and partners before the meeting and continued co-ordination is expected afterward as well, Psaki said. 

The White House argues that Biden is also coming to the summit with a strong hand, having earlier on Tuesday signed into law the $550bn infrastructure bill that his administration says will boost the US’s competitiveness with China.

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com 

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