What Would Be the Point? China Feels Relations Too Tense for a Pointless Biden-Xi Summit
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan has suggested direct talks may be on the cards
Editor’s note: China taking a different approach here from Russia. They won’t have a summit for summit’s sake, no matter how nicely Biden asks for the photo-op. Rather they’re ‘playing hard to get’ and want a gesture of goodwill, or else they’re perfectly comfortable with the present level of mutual tension. The Russian situation is different because of the Cold War precedent that US-Russian nuclear arms control can still make progress when relations are abysmal.
The tense state of relations between Beijing and Washington is not conducive to their leaders holding talks, Chinese observers said after a suggestion from the White House that a meeting could be on the cards.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan on Thursday signalled Washington was considering direct talks between US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.
Beijing on Friday would not say if a meeting was being planned.
“We are aware of the reports. We don’t have information to provide now,” foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters.
Chinese observers said while a Xi-Biden meeting could help to control military risks it may be difficult to make progress given the current tensions and following fractious US-China talks in Alaska in March. The world’s two largest economies are at loggerheads over everything from trade and human rights to the South China Sea.
“I don’t think China is keen for a meeting,” said Lu Xiang, a US affairs expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
“The United States has been challenging China on issues such as Hong Kong and Xinjiang, which Beijing sees as testing its bottom line, so what would be the point of this dialogue? I don’t know how the two could talk.”
Sullivan, however, suggested the two heads of state could meet.
“The notion that President Biden will engage in the coming months with President Xi in some way to take stock of where we are in the relationship, and to ensure that we have that kind of direct communication that we found valuable with President Putin yesterday, we’re very much committed to that,” he said.
“It’s now just a question of when and how.”
Xi and Biden are expected to attend the Group of 20 summit in Rome in October which could be a potential place for them to meet, Sullivan said, but added that “we don’t have any particular plans at the moment”.
His remarks come after Biden met Russian President Vladimir Putin for talks in Geneva on Wednesday, which both leaders described as “constructive” and “positive” though divisions remained over issues including human rights and cyberattacks.
Biden also took part in Nato and Group of Seven talks while in Europe, with the G7 raising human rights concerns in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and calling for a new inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, while Nato said China’s rising military power presented “systemic challenges”.
Beijing reacted angrily, accusing Washington of trying to sow discord in its relations with Europe, and hit out at Nato for “slander against China’s peaceful development”, calling on the transatlantic security alliance to “stop hyping up all sorts of ‘China threat’ rhetoric”.
Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing and an adviser to China’s cabinet, said there was almost no room for compromise on key issues.
“Even in the field of climate change, cooperation [between China and the US] has complexities and limitations,” he said.
If Xi and Biden did meet it would most likely be at the G20 summit, Shi said, adding that any talks, by phone or in person, “would be helpful at least to control military risks” though they were unlikely to have a significant or lasting effect in terms of easing tensions.
Xi and Biden have met numerous times throughout their careers – both served as vice-presidents at the same time. But when asked on Wednesday if he planned to talk “old friend to old friend” with Xi, Biden said: “Let’s get something straight. We know each other well; we’re not old friends. It’s just pure business.”
They spoke by phone in February after Biden took office, with Biden raising trade and human rights concerns, while Xi asked the US to respect China’s interests and be cautious in handling issues related to its sovereignty.
Last week, China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken laid out their views on a range of contentious issues during a phone call, after publicly sparring during the Alaska meeting in March.
Xin Qiang, a US affairs expert at Fudan University in Shanghai, said talks between Xi and Biden were needed to get relations “on the right track”.
“We’ve seen the United States pushing allies to criticise and attack China on issues ranging from the South China Sea to Taiwan, and the sanctions … continue,” Xin said. “But now the US has to do something to create an atmosphere for the two leaders to meet.”
Source: The South China Morning Post