'Old friends'? For Xi and Biden, not necessarily

US President Joe Biden meeting virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the White House on Nov 15, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

BEIJING/WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Chinese leader Xi Jinping greeted US President Joe Biden as "old friend" at the start of their first video meeting, using an expression that Mr Biden has pushed back on.

In China, the expression "lao peng you" connotes fondness and shows a level of familiarity and trust, and when said by Mr Xi, 68, reflects a shared history that dates to August 2011, when the two held hours of conversations and travelled in Sichuan province - before either had reached the highest office.

Mr Wang Huiyao, president of the Centre for China and Globalisation, said Mr Xi's use of the expression is a show of genuine goodwill.

Mr Daniel Russel, the top US diplomat for Asia under former president Barack Obama, said it was part of each leader's seeking the "narrative high ground" at the opening.

"Xi deliberately greeting Biden as 'my old friend' - after Biden went on record this summer expressly denying that they are 'friends'. And Biden, with a toothy smile, reminding Xi that all countries - including China - 'have to play by the same rules of the road'," Mr Russel said.

Professor Shi Yinhong, an international relations expert at Renmin University of China, noted Mr Xi's use of the term despite the difficult state of relations.

"When we Chinese call someone an old friend, we mean we've known him for a long time. But an 'old friend' doesn't necessarily mean he is still a real friend," Prof Shi said.

Given current diplomatic tensions, Mr Biden may not want to be seen by US allies and his political opponents as too much of a "friend".

In June, a reporter asked Mr Biden, 78, whether he might call Mr Xi - "old friend to old friend" - seeking access for World Health Organisation investigators searching for the origins of Covid-19.

"Let's get something straight. We know each other well; we're not old friends. It's just pure business," Mr Biden said at the time.

Ahead of the meeting on Monday (Nov 15), White House spokesman Jen Psaki was asked about that exchange.

"Well... I can confirm... he still does not consider him an 'old friend', so that remains consistent," she said.

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