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Biden and Xi meet virtually as US-China chasm widens

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President Joe Biden opened his virtual meeting with China’s XI Jinping on Monday by saying their goal is to ensure competition “does not veer into conflict.”

The two leaders are meeting by video amid mounting tensions in the US-China relationship. Biden has criticized Beijing over human rights abuses against Uyghurs in northwest China, squelching democratic protests in Hong Kong, military aggression against the self-ruled island of Taiwan, and more. Xi’s deputies, meanwhile, have lashed out against the Biden White House for interfering in what it sees as internal Chinese matters.

“It seems to be our responsibility as the leaders of China and the US to ensure that the competition between our countries does not veer into conflict, whether intended or unintended, rather than simple, straightforward competition," Biden said at the start of the meeting.

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Biden would have preferred to meet Xi in person, but the Chinese leader has not left his country since before the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

The White House floated the idea of a virtual meeting as the next best thing to allow for the two leaders to have a candid conversation about a wide range of strains in the relationship.

Xi told Biden the two sides need to improve communication. The two leaders traveled together when both were vice presidents and know each other well.

“I stand ready to work with you, Mr. President, to build consensus, take active steps and move China-US relations forward in a positive direction,” said Xi, who called Biden his “old friend.”

Chinese officials said Taiwan would be their top issue for the talks. Tensions have heightened as the Chinese military has dispatched an increasing number of fighter jets near the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which Beijing considers part of its territory.

“The Taiwan issue concerns China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as China’s core interest,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Monday. “It is the most important and sensitive issue in China-US relations.”

The White House said Biden will abide by the longstanding US “One China” policy, which recognizes Beijing but allows informal relations and defense ties with Taipei. Chinese military forces held exercises last week near Taiwan in response to a visit by a US congressional delegation to the island.

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 may be looking to stabilize the relationship in the near term. White House press secretary Jen Psaki added that the “condensing of power” in China made the leader-to-leader conversations essential.

Slowing economic growth and a brewing housing crisis also loom large for Beijing.

At the same time, Biden, who has seen his polling numbers diminish at home amid concerns about the lingering coronavirus pandemic, inflation and supply chain problems, is looking to find a measure of equilibrium on the most consequential foreign policy matter he faces.

Despite his domestic problems, White House officials made the case that Biden was coming into his meeting with Xi from a position of strength.

Earlier Monday, Biden signed into law a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, legislation to upgrade the nation’s crumbling infrastructure that the Democrat argued is crucial for the US as it seeks to retain a competitive edge over China.

“Because of this law, next year will be the first year in 20 years American infrastructure investment will grow faster than China’s,” Biden said. “We will once again have the best roads, bridges, ports and airports over the next decade.”

The White House set low expectations for the meeting with Xi: No major announcements or even a joint statement were anticipated.

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