Joe Biden and Chinese Xi Jinping drank noodles together in Beijing. They shared deep thoughts on the significance of America during an exchange on the Tibetan Plateau. They talked to US business leaders about developing a sincere respect for one another.
The American president supported his relationship with Xi as proof of his sincere belief that … good foreign policy it starts with building strong personal relationships.
But as the two leaders prepare to hold their first presidential meeting on Monday, the troubled US-China relationship is proving that the power of one of Biden’s greatest stated strengths as a politician – the ability to connect – has its limits.
“When it comes to US-China relations, the gaps are so great and the trend lines are so problematic that the personal touch can only go so far,” said Matthew Goodman, who was an adviser for Asia. at the National Security Council in the administrations of Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
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White House officials have set low expectations for Monday’s virtual meeting – no major announcements are expected and there is no plan for the two countries’ customary joint declaration at the end, according to administration officials.
The warmth of the audience – Xi referred to Biden as his “Old friend” when Biden visited China in 2013, while the then vice president of the United States spoke of their “friendship,” it has cooled down now that both men are heads of state. Biden bristles in June when asked by a reporter if he would push his old friend to collaborate with a World Health Organization investigation into … the origins of the coronavirus.
“Let’s be clear: we know each other well; we’re not old friends, “Biden said.” It’s just pure business.
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Biden, however, believes that a face-to-face meeting, even virtual like the one the two leaders will be held on Monday evening, has its value.
“He feels that the story of their relationship, having spent time with him, allows him to be quite as candid as he has been in the past and will continue to be,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in preview of the meeting.
Biden and Xi, 78 and 68, respectively, met on trips to the United States and China when both were vice presidents, interactions both leaders say have left a lasting impression.
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Recently, there have been signs that there may be at least a partial thaw after the first nine months of the Biden administration were marked by trade recriminations between the two sides and unproductive trading between the presidents’ top advisers.
Last week, for example, the United States and China pledged at UN climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland to increase their cooperation and accelerate action to contain climate-damaging emissions.
Monday’s meeting – the two leaders’ third engagement since Biden became president – comes amid mounting tensions in US-China relations. The two held long phone calls in February and September in which they discussed human rights, trade, the pandemic and other issues.
Biden has made it clear that he sees China as the biggest economic and national security competitor of the United States and has tried to reformulate American foreign policy to reflect this belief.
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His administration accused Beijing of committing human rights violations against ethnic minorities in northwest China, cracking down on pro-democracy efforts in Hong Kong and resisting global pressure to fully cooperate with investigations into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. .
Tensions have also increased as the Chinese military has carried out an increasing number of sorties near the self-governing island of Taiwan, which Beijing considers part of its territory.
Chinese officials have signaled that Taiwan will be a major issue for the talks. Biden has made it clear that his administration will abide by the longstanding US “One China” policy, which recognizes Beijing but allows for informal relations and defense ties with Taipei. Chinese military forces held exercises near Taiwan last week in response to a visit by a US Congressional delegation to the island.
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The president intends, in part, to use the conversation to emphasize the need to establish “guardrails” in the relationship to ensure that the two sides in the midst of their tough competition avoid “unintended conflict,” according to a senior administration official who informed reporters on the White House planning for the meeting and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The official said the video call is expected to last “several hours,” adding that the White House was confident the meeting between the two leaders would allow more depth to their conversation than their previous two calls this year.
Other US presidents have argued that linking with a geopolitical adversary can be a good foreign policy strategy. George W. Bush faced ridicule after his first meeting with Russian Vladimir Putin when he said he “looked the man in the eye” and “was able to get an idea of his soul”. Bush would go on to house the Russian leader on his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and take him to his father’s estate in Kennebunkport, Maine, where the 43rd and 41st presidents took the Russian president to fish.
Putin ultimately frustrated Bush and the relationship was severed after the 2008 Russian invasion of neighboring Georgia.
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Donald Trump went from denigrating North Korean Kim Jong Un as a “rocket man” to declaring the two “in love” in an exchange of letters as the US president unsuccessfully tried to persuade Kim to give up the regime’s nuclear weapons program.
Biden’s personal approach to foreign policy is partly informed by the fact that he has been on the international stage for much of the last half century, noted author Evan Osnos in the biography “Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now. “
“You can leave him in Kazakhstan or Bahrain, it doesn’t matter – he’ll find a Joe Blow he met 30 years ago who now runs the place,” Julianne Smith, a Biden consultant, told Osnos.
With Beijing hosting 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 seek to stabilize relations in the short term. term.
Slowing economic growth and a growing housing crisis are also looming over Beijing. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in a CBS “Face the Nation” interview broadcast on Sunday warned that deepening Beijing’s problems could “have global consequences.”
At the same time, Biden, who has seen the number of his home polls dwindle amid concerns over the persistent coronavirus pandemic, inflation and supply chain problems, is trying to strike a balance on the foreign policy issue. more consequential than it has to face.
Biden would have preferred to hold an in-person meeting with Xi, but Xi hasn’t left China since before the coronavirus pandemic began. The virtual meeting was proposed after Biden said during a September phone call with the Chinese leader that he would like to see Xi again.