WASHINGTON — US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping both said in messages on Wednesday that their countries needed to cooperate, stressing that working together would benefit the world.
But this message from the top is increasingly at odds with comments and warnings by other officials, underscoring the increasingly difficult task of managing US-China tensions and keeping them from flaring up, particularly over Taiwan.
“China stands ready to work with the United States to find the right way to get along with each other in the new era on the basis of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation,” Mr Xi said in his letter, which was read out at the annual gala dinner of non-profit group National Committee on US-China Relations (NCUSCR) at The Plaza New York.
Mr Biden’s message, also read out at the same dinner, was that both superpowers had an important role to play in addressing global challenges, including tackling the climate crisis and strengthening health security around the world.
But he added that the US would continue to promote its vision of a free, open, secure and prosperous world, and invest in boosting its competitiveness globally.
Mr Biden, whose administration has adopted the strategy of cooperating and competing with China at the same time, stressed that he was “focused on responsibly managing the competition between our two countries”.
He had the same message at a meeting with his top defence advisers earlier in the day, stressing that the US did not seek conflict with China.
“We must maintain our military advantage, but we’re making it clear that we don’t seek conflict… There’ll be stiff competition, but there doesn’t need to be conflict,” he said.
Yet the Biden administration has voiced an increasingly pessimistic and negative view of Beijing’s intentions towards Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province to be united with mainland China, by force if necessary.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who said last week that China “pursues reunification on a much faster timeline”, repeated his point on Wednesday that Beijing was trying to “speed up” its seizure of Taiwan and would exert more pressure on the island.
“What’s changed is this: A decision by the government in Beijing that that status quo was no longer acceptable, that they wanted to speed up the process by which they would pursue reunification,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg.
Unofficial US-China exchanges are still taking place, with NCUSCR president Stephen Orlins saying that the committee was helping to conduct seven such dialogues – on economics, maritime issues, the digital economy, rule of law, healthcare, climate, finance and security.
But the US business community, which has traditionally acted as an intermediary between Washington and Beijing, and championed engagement with China, may be souring on playing that role.
US Trade Representative Katherine Tai, who spoke at the gala dinner, said there was a sense that the business community had lost “some aspect of the hope and optimism of decades past”.
Urging them to give the US government honest feedback about the challenges they faced doing business with China, she said: “There is a sense of nostalgia that many working in this area have… but that clear-eyed candour around today’s situation is going to be extremely important to our ability to navigate this relationship responsibly over these next years.”
Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who spoke in a video message aired at the gala dinner, blamed the US and China’s strained ties on the Trump administration.
He said: “A drift of the United States-Chinese relationship into constant confrontations will have the practical consequence that one of these confrontations will get out of hand. And so the current drift, which started in the previous administration, should be stopped and reversed.”