US President Biden and China's Xi agree to 'simple, straightforward competition'

Three-hour virtual talks end with leaders agreeing to tread carefully amid increasingly fraught competition

US President Joe Biden listens during virtual talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. EPA
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US President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping’s three-hour virtual talk concluded with an agreement to tread carefully as their nations find themselves in an increasingly fraught competition.

Facing domestic pressures at home, Mr Biden and Mr Xi seemed determined to lower the temperature in what for both sides is their most significant – and frequently turbulent – relationship on the global stage.

“As I’ve said before, it seems to me our responsibility as leaders of China and the United States is to ensure that the competition between our countries does not veer into conflict, whether intended or unintended,” Mr Biden told Mr Xi at the start of their virtual meeting on Monday.

“Just simple, straightforward competition.”

The White House set low expectations for the meeting, with no major announcements or statements delivered.

Mr Xi greeted his “old friend” and echoed Mr Biden’s cordial tone in his own opening remarks.

“China and the United States need to increase communication and co-operation,” he said.

The relationship has been tense since Mr Biden strode into the White House in January and made several accusations against Beijing, including human rights abuses against the Uighurs in north-west China and the suppression of democratic protests in Hong Kong.

Mr Xi’s deputies, meanwhile, have criticised the Biden administration for interfering in what they consider internal Chinese matters.

The White House said Mr Biden again raised concerns about human rights in China and made clear he sought to “protect American workers and industries from the PRC’s unfair trade and economic practices”.

The two also spoke about key regional challenges, including North Korea, Afghanistan and Iran.

An outdoor screen shows a news program about a virtual meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden in Beijing on November 16, 2021. AFP

The leaders agreed to work on organising talks between nuclear-armed nations that would focus on arms control.

"President Biden did raise with President Xi the need for a strategic stability set of conversations," National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Tuesday, using an expression employed in diplomatic circles to indicate arms control.

"The two leaders agreed that we would look to begin to carry forward discussions," he said in comments made at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.

In addition, a consensus on journalist visas was reached before the virtual summit, the official China Daily newspaper reported late on Tuesday, citing unnamed Chinese foreign ministry sources.

Under the agreement, the US will issue one-year, multiple-entry visas to Chinese journalists, the newspaper said, and added that the Chinese side has committed to granting equal treatment to US journalists once the US policies come into force.

Both countries will issue visas to journalists based on applicable laws and regulations, it said, and journalists will be able to freely depart and return under strict compliance with Covid-19 protocols.

Powers under pressure

As US-China tensions have mounted, both leaders have found themselves under the weight of increased challenges in their own countries.

Mr Biden, whose poll numbers have diminished amid concerns about the Covid-19 pandemic, inflation and supply chain problems, was looking to find a measure of equilibrium on the most consequential foreign policy matter he faces.

Mr Xi, meanwhile, is facing a Covid-19 resurgence, energy shortages and a looming housing crisis that US officials worry could affect the global market.

“Right now, both China and the United States are at critical stages of development, and humanity lives in a global village, and we face multiple challenges together,” Mr Xi said.

News agencies contributed to this report

Updated: November 16, 2021, 5:54 PM