US aiming to defuse tensions in Biden-Xi summit
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US President Joe Biden and China's Xi Jinping will speak Monday at a virtual summit aimed at defusing some of the tensions that have built up over Taiwan and other flashpoint issues, but with both sides signaling little appetite for compromise.
The two leaders have already spoken on the phone twice since Biden's inauguration in January but, with Xi refusing to travel abroad because of the pandemic, an online video meeting remains the best available avenue for direct talks.
With most attention in the build-up focused on the sparring over Taiwan, a self-ruling democracy claimed by China, Biden's aides have cast the summit as an opportunity to help prevent tensions escalating further.
"We know as a responsible global leader that it's important to keep channels of communication open," a senior administration official told reporters, adding that "competition" between the two countries should not lead to "conflict."
"The president will also make clear that we want to build common guardrails to avoid miscalculation or misunderstanding."
At the same time, the White House also sought to temper expectations, with the official saying that the summit "is not a meeting where we expect deliverables to be coming out."
The summit, initiated by Biden, will take place Monday at 7:45 pm Washington time, which in Beijing is 8:45 am on Tuesday, according to a senior administration official.
Washington hopes the meeting, which is expected to last several hours, will be more productive than talking over the phone.
Xi has not left China for nearly two years, and Biden has criticized his absence at recent major international events.
Relations between the superpowers plummeted during the presidency of Donald Trump, who launched a trade war with China while assailing Beijing over its handling of the pandemic.
While the tone has changed from the outbursts of the Trump era, relations have worsened over Taiwan, while ties remain deeply strained over a wide range of human rights issues and trade.
China has ramped up military activities near Taiwan in recent years, with a record number of planes intruding into the island's air defense zone in October.
China has repeatedly signalled in recent days it will brook no lectures on Taiwan.
"Any connivance of and support for the 'Taiwan independence' forces undermines peace across the Taiwan Strait and would only boomerang in the end," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a weekend meeting.
China's foreign ministry on Monday put the onus on Biden to improve relations.
"We hope that the US will work in the same direction as China to get along with each other," foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters.
Chinese state media on Monday also portrayed Taiwan as the key flashpoint in current US-China tensions.
"In order to reduce the risk of a strategic collision between China and the US, the latter must take a step back from the Taiwan question and show its restraint," read an editorial in the Global Times, a hawkish tabloid.
However the US administration official signaled Biden would not shy away from the hot-button issue in the Xi meeting.
Biden "will be very direct and candid about areas where we have concerns," the official said, referring to "China's coercive and provocative behavior with respect to Taiwan."
The official also stressed that the two nations had room for cooperation in various areas, such as climate change.
This virtual meeting is being held at a time when Xi continues to strengthen his grip on power.
Top Chinese Communist Party leaders last week passed a resolution that is expected to help Xi shore up his power by setting in stone his vision for China and diminishing the role of previous leaders.
The resolution "further cemented" the concentration of power in the hands of the Chinese president, the Washington official said.
The official added, "In our mind that just further underscores the importance of this leader level engagement."