China’s head of state and party leader Xi Jinping speaks with a patient smile, while US President Joe Biden sits almost like a student and listens to his colleague. More than a minute from the start of the first virtual summit of the two heads of state, some Chinese state media aired on Tuesday morning, and the message from Beijing was clear: China’s president has not come to be instructed by his counterpart. Here two superpowers meet at eye level.
The first digital meeting between the two heads of state was awaited with great anticipation. Since Biden took office, the US President and Xi have not met in person, they have only talked twice on the phone. China’s head of state has not left the country since the pandemic began and has skipped important summits such as the G-20 meeting in Rome at the end of October.
At the same time, the relationship between the United States and China is worse than it has been since the relationship was established more than 40 years ago. Biden sees Beijing as the US’s most powerful rival and a geopolitical threat to his country’s security. In China there is great fear of an alliance of democratic states that could more clearly hold Beijing accountable for its international violations of rules and human rights.
Biden: Competition shouldn’t degenerate into conflict
The three-hour exchange between Biden and Xi also showed how long the list of disputes is. At the outset, both tried to be friendly: “It seems to me that our responsibility as leaders of China and the United States is to ensure that competition between our countries does not degenerate into conflict, whether intentional or unintentional,” said Biden. Xi, in turn, called Biden an “old friend” and said that China and the US, as the world’s largest economies and permanent members of the UN Security Council, need to intensify their communication and cooperation.
But behind closed doors it was a lot tougher. According to the US Presidential Office, Biden addressed a number of conflict issues that showed how deep the rifts are. Including the actions of the People’s Republic in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet as well as human rights in general. Under President Xi Jinping, the Communist Party expanded control over all segments of Chinese society.
With the help of a state security law, Beijing has systematically taken action against the pro-democratic movement in the Chinese special administrative region of Hong Kong since the outbreak of the mass protests in 2019, and thousands of critics have been imprisoned since then. According to the United Nations, China’s security authorities have detained more than a million people in the Xinjiang region of western China.
As announced, Biden also addressed China’s massive threats against Taiwan in the conversation. Taipei has been lamenting growing political and military pressure for years, which some experts have already described as a conflict on the verge of war. Around the Chinese national holiday in October, the People’s Republic sent a record number of fighter planes towards the island.
The People’s Republic lays claim to democracy off its coast. Party leader Xi has repeatedly called the union with Taiwan an unconditional part of the country’s return to a world power. The unification was “historically inevitable,” said Xi in 2019, and must be enforced by force if necessary. According to Chinese state media, Xi warned in an interview with Biden that he would have to take “decisive measures” if “pro-Taiwan independence forces” cross a “red line”.
China speaks of a constructive exchange
Biden reiterated that the US firmly opposed “unilateral efforts” to change Taiwan’s status quo. The United States followed the Taiwan Law of 1979 unchanged, with which the United States committed itself to the defense capabilities of the island and has been supplying weapons ever since.
However, both sides also omitted numerous points of contention. For example, US tariffs on Chinese goods, which Beijing is demanding that they be lowered, were not on Biden’s agenda. Washington had already made it clear beforehand that no concrete agreements would be negotiated in the conversation.
The Chinese side nevertheless spoke of a constructive exchange afterwards. It helps to expand mutual understanding. Even if Xi Jinping is staging his country at the height of power, the growing criticism from abroad is a danger for the party. Beijing is isolating itself, but does not want to appear isolated. The party leader should have liked the pictures that the meeting produced on Tuesday.