Biden-Xi virtual meeting to be about managing competition: US official

A file photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping with then US Vice-President Joe Biden on Dec 4, 2013. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON/BEIJING - United States President Joe Biden will seek to manage competition between the US and China to ensure it does not spiral into conflict, at a virtual summit with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Monday (Nov 15) evening (Tuesday morning in Singapore), a US official has said.

"This meeting is about our ongoing efforts to responsibly manage the competition, not agreeing to a specific deliverable or outcome. Setting the terms of the competition will be an ongoing effort and this meeting between the two leaders is one step in that," said the senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in a briefing with reporters on Sunday.

The virtual summit, which will start at 7.45pm US time (8.45am on Tuesday in Singapore) and could last several hours, will be the first time the two leaders are meeting face to face via video since Mr Biden took office in January .

They spoke on the phone for two hours in February and 1½ hours in September.

Such engagement between top leaders is essential to facilitating effective communication between Washington and Beijing, given Mr Xi's centralisation of power, said the official.

Mr Biden will raise America's concerns about China's behaviour, she said.

These include Beijing's state support of industries, economic coercion, human rights practices, and its coercive and provocative behaviour regarding Taiwan, she added.

"This is an opportunity for President Biden to tell President Xi directly that he expects him to play by the rules of the road, which is what other responsible nations do on everything from technology to trade to international institutions and international waterways," said the official.

Tariffs, one of China's most urgent concerns, are not expected to be on the agenda, although China watchers believe President Xi could raise it as part of a list of grievances to match the US'.

Other than these areas of divergence, Mr Biden will also discuss areas of potential alignment such as climate change and health security.

The official stressed that China's cooperation on these issues are in its interests and not a quid pro quo for American acquiescence in other areas.

"This is not a favour to us," she said. "While we may work together in these regards, that does not alter the nature of the bilateral relationship, and we very much reject the linkage between cooperation on transnational issues and bilateral relations."

The Biden administration was not trying to change China through bilateral engagement, she told reporters.

"We don't think that's realistic. Rather, we're trying to shape the international environment in a way that is favourable to us and our allies and partners," she said.

"We are seeking a steady state of affairs between our two countries where we compete vigorously, where we push back on the many areas of concern we have with the PRC and where we coordinate on issues where our interests align," she said, referring to the People's Republic of China.

While there is little expectation that the virtual meeting will yield any concrete outcomes, it demonstrates at the highest level that "there is a basic understanding and agreement that both sides don't want a new Cold War, and they certainly do not want any unintentional conflict," said Associate Professor Hoo Tiang Boon, who studies US-China relations at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

"I think it will try to establish the rules of this competition...I think key here is to set out the 'guardrails', to prevent this from veering into conflict."

In contrast, Beijing has been more coy about what it wants to discuss at the upcoming meeting.

When asked about it at a daily briefing on Monday, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian described bilateral relations as being at "a critical crossroad".

He would only say that Mr Xi will have "a frank and in-depth exchange of views" with Mr Biden on strategic issues on the future of US-China relations, and "important issues of mutual concern".

Chinese state media, however, have said that Taiwan will top the agenda, citing academics who believe Mr Xi will warn his US counterpart not to meddle with its domestic affairs.

An editorial in the Global Times said that since US officials have described the aim of the meeting as one of responsibly managing competition, "the most critical and urgent is to defuse the explosive question concerning Taiwan, because the Taiwan Strait is the most likely flashpoint to trigger the confrontation between China and the US".

In a phone call ahead of the Xi-Biden summit, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Saturday warned Secretary of State Antony Blinken not to "send the wrong signals" to pro-independence forces in Taiwan.

The Chinese will not want a military conflict with the US, and the only possible scenario where that could happen would be if it was related to Taiwan, said Prof Hoo.

"I think Xi would want some form of assurance from Biden himself that the US will still stick to its longstanding one-China policy. Likewise, the Americans also have concerns about escalating Chinese military pressure in the Taiwan Strait, and they will want some form of assurance from Xi himself that the Chinese will not resort to force, and it will be about peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait," he said.

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