Biden and Xi plan US-China virtual summit before year's end, US says

The two leaders have only communicated over two phone calls since Biden became US president

Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with then-US vice president Joe Biden in Beijing on December 4, 2013. Reuters
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The United States and China have agreed in principle for their presidents to hold a virtual meeting before year's end, a senior US administration official said on Wednesday, after high-level talks meant to improve communication between the two big powers.

The closed-door meeting at an airport hotel in the Swiss city of Zurich between US national security adviser Jake Sullivan and China's top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, was their first face-to-face encounter since an unusually public and acrid airing of grievances in Alaska in March.

Both sides had described the meeting as a follow-on from President Joe Biden's early September call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, prior to which the world's top two economies appeared to have been locked in a stalemate.

The White House said Mr Sullivan raised concerns about contentious issues such as Chinese actions in the South China Sea, as well as on human rights and Beijing's stances on Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan.

At the end of the day, however, both Beijing and Washington said the talks, which lasted six hours, were constructive and candid. The US side said the tone was very different from Alaska.

"We do have out of today's conversation an agreement in principle to hold a virtual bilateral (summit) meeting before the end of the year," the US official told reporters.

Asked for further details, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said: "We're still working through what that would look like, when and of course the final details we don't quite have them yet."

Mr Biden's call with Mr Xi in September ended a nearly seven-month gap in direct communication between the leaders, and the two discussed the need to ensure that their competition does not veer into conflict.

"Our relationship with Beijing is one that is dynamic, it is one that is multifaceted and it is one that at its core is defined by stiff competition," State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Thursday.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his delegation leave a hotel in Zurich, Switzerland, where a meeting between US and Chinese officials took place on October 6, 2021.  AP

Mr Biden said on Tuesday that he spoke to Mr Xi about Taiwan and they agreed to abide by the "Taiwan agreement", as tensions ratchet up between Taipei and Beijing.

Taiwan has reported 148 Chinese air force planes in the southern and southwestern part of its air defence zone over a four-day period beginning on Friday, the same day China marked a patriotic holiday, National Day.

"We strongly urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic and economic pressure and coercion, against Taiwan," Mr Price.

Taiwan's Foreign Ministry, which had sought clarification from the US about Mr Biden's comments, said on Wednesday Washington reassured them that its approach to Taiwan had not changed, and that its commitment to the democratically governed island claimed by Beijing was "rock solid".

Early speculation was that Mr Biden and Mr Xi might meet in person at the G20 summit in Italy in October, but Mr Xi has not left China since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic early last year.

"Today's conversation, broadly speaking, was a more meaningful and substantive engagement than we've had to date below the leader level," the US official said, adding that Washington hoped it would be a "model for future encounters".

The official said it should not be seen as a thaw in relations, however.

"What we are trying to achieve is a steady state between the United States and China where we are able to compete intensely but to manage that competition responsibly," the official said.

Mr Yang said China opposes using "competition" to define Sino-US relations, Chinese state media reported.

Senior Chinese foreign policy adviser Yang Jiechi and his delegation leave the Hyatt hotel at Zurich Airport, Switzerland, on October 6, 2021.   AP

China's Foreign Ministry said Mr Yang told Mr Sullivan that confrontation would damage both countries and the world.

"The two sides agreed to take action ... to strengthen strategic communication, properly manage differences, avoid conflict and confrontation," a ministry statement said.

With trade tensions also at the top of the US-China agenda, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai, in Paris for Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development meetings, has said she hopes to hold discussions soon with Chinese counterparts.

On Monday, Ms Tai unveiled the results of a months-long "top-to-bottom" review of China trade policy, pledging to hold "frank" talks with Beijing about its failure to keep promises made in former President Donald Trump's trade deal and end harmful industrial policies.

Updated: October 07, 2021, 7:41 PM