In Beijing, Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping had a bowl of noodles. During a conversation on the Tibetan plateau, they expressed serious views about the meaning of America. They’ve raved to American business executives about cultivating genuine regard for one another.
The US president has cited his friendship with Xi as proof of his sincere view that successful foreign policy begins with strong personal ties.
The fragile US-China relationship is revealing that one of Biden’s biggest touted skills as a politician — the ability to connect — has its limits as the two leaders prepare to convene their first presidential encounter on Monday.
“The distances are so large and the trend lines are so troublesome in US-China ties that the human touch can only go so far,” said Matthew Goodman, who served as an Asia advisor on the National Security Council under the Barack Obama and George W. Bush administrations.
Officials from the White House have set modest expectations for the virtual meeting on Monday: According to administration sources, no big announcements are planned, and there are no plans for the typical joint statement by the two countries at the end.
When Biden visited China in 2013, Xi referred to him as a “old friend,” while the then-US vice president spoke of their “friendship.” Now that both men are presidents of state, the public warmth has cooled. When asked by a reporter in June if he would urge his old buddy to help with a World Health Organization inquiry into the coronavirus’s origins, Biden reacted angrily.
“Let’s be clear: We know each other well, but we’re not old buddies,” Biden stated. “It’s all about business.”
Despite this, Biden feels that a face-to-face encounter, even if it is virtual, such as the one the two leaders will conduct Monday evening, has importance.
In advance of the meeting, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “He feels that the history of their relationship, having spent time with him, allows him to be quite candid as he has been in the past and will continue to be.”
Biden and Xi, both 78 and 68 years old, met as vice presidents on trips across the United States and China, and their interactions left an indelible impression on both leaders.
After the first nine months of the Biden administration, which were defined by recriminations and ineffective interactions between the presidents’ senior aides, there have been signals that there may be at least a partial thawing.
For example, at the United Nations climate negotiations in Glasgow, Scotland last week, the United States and China vowed to strengthen their collaboration and accelerate steps to reduce climate-damaging emissions.
The two leaders will meet for the third time since Biden became president on Monday, amid rising tensions in the US-China relationship. In February and September, the two spoke on the phone for several hours on human rights, commerce, the epidemic, and other topics.
Biden has made it obvious that he regards China as the US’s largest national security and economic rival, and he has attempted to recast American foreign policy to reflect that conviction.
His administration has chastised Beijing for committing human rights violations against ethnic minorities in northwest China, stifling pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong, and refusing to fully cooperate with investigations into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic despite international pressure.
Tensions have also grown as China’s military has conducted a growing number of flights near Taiwan, which Beijing claims to be part of its territory.
Taiwan is expected to be a major topic of discussion in the discussions, according to Chinese authorities. Biden has stated unequivocally that his administration will adhere to the United States’ long-standing “One China” policy, which acknowledges Beijing while allowing for informal interactions and defense links with Taipei. Chinese military personnel conducted drills near Taiwan last week in reaction to a legislative delegation from the United States visiting the island.
Bonding with a geopolitical opponent has been a smart foreign policy approach for several US presidents. After his first encounter with Russian President Vladimir Putin, George W. Bush was mocked for claiming that he had “looked the man in the eye” and “was able to acquire a feel of his essence.” The Russian president was then hosted at Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, and taken to his father’s house in Kennebunkport, Maine, where the 43rd and 41st presidents took him fishing.
After Russia’s 2008 invasion of its neighbor Georgia, Putin enraged Bush, and the alliance was destroyed.
As the US president failed to persuade North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to give up the regime’s nuclear weapons development, Trump moved from calling him a “rocket guy” to saying the two “fell in love” in a letter exchange.
In his book “Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now,” author Evan Osnos highlighted that Biden’s personal approach to foreign policy is inspired in part by the fact that he has been on the international stage for most of the previous half-century.
“You can plop him in Kazakhstan or Bahrain, it doesn’t matter,” Julianne Smith, a Biden aide, said Osnos. “He’ll find some Joe Blow he met 30 years ago who’s now running the place.”
According to a person familiar with Biden administration thinking, with Beijing planning to host the Winter Olympics in February and Xi preparing to be approved by Communist Party leaders for a third five-year term as president next October — unprecedented in recent Chinese history — there’s plenty of reason for the Chinese leader to look to stabilize the relationship in the near term. To disclose private considerations, the individual insisted on anonymity.
Beijing is also concerned about slowing economic growth and a looming housing crisis. In a CBS’ “Face the Nation” interview aired Sunday, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen cautioned that the worsening of Beijing’s troubles might have “world ramifications.”
At the same time, Biden is attempting to strike a balance on the most important foreign policy issue he confronts, despite declining polling numbers at home due to concerns about the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, inflation, and supply chain issues.
Biden would have loved to meet with Xi in person, but Xi has not left China since before the coronavirus outbreak began. The virtual encounter was offered after Biden expressed interest in seeing Xi again during a phone contact with the Chinese leader in September.