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In an attempt to ease tensions, Biden and China's Xi meet virtually


The relationship between the United States and China, the world's two largest economies, is a complicated one. Among the biggest sticking points are trade, Taiwan and human rights. Now, in an attempt to ease some of those tensions, President Biden met with Chinese President Xi Jinping for about 3 1/2 hours last night. The two met virtually by teleconference as Xi hasn't left China since the pandemic began. Both sides described the meeting as an effort to manage their country's intense competition so that it doesn't turn into conflict. Let's get a readout of what they talked about from NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez and Emily Feng, NPR's Beijing correspondent. Franco, let's start with you. What were President Biden's objectives for this meeting?

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: You know, A, there's no question that tensions have been high between the two nations. President Biden said the goal was to limit misunderstandings and ensure that competition they had didn't veer into any unintended military conflict. You know, it was a chance to have a more substantial discussion than the two previous calls they had. It was a largely private meeting and so long, actually, that they broke it into two parts with a break in between. They did make some opening remarks, though, for reporters. Here's President Biden talking about the need for a candid and forthright conversation.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It seems to me we need to establish some commonsense guardrails, to be clear and honest where we disagree and work together where our interests intersect, especially on vital global issues like climate change.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, the meeting came on the heels of an agreement reached at the U.N. Climate Summit to cooperate on limiting emissions. So they had a kind of positive launching point. Biden also had a bunch of concerns to raise. But mostly he wanted to establish some rules of the road for their competition that he felt was not only important for the United States but also for the global economy.

MARTÍNEZ: I'm intrigued that they had an intermission, Franco, by the way.


MARTÍNEZ: But, you know, I guess when it gets that high level, you need some time, I guess. Now let's talk about some of those. How did the White House characterize the meeting afterward?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, the White House described the meeting as respectful and an open conversation about the complex nature of the relationship. Senior officials said they talked about a range of topics from the pandemic and trade. Some of the concerns that Biden raised included human rights issues in Xinjiang, as well as concerns over some of China's economic practices. They also talked about Taiwan and U.S. opposition to any effort to undermine peace and stability in the South China Sea.

What I found interesting, though, was that the White House would not describe the call as being helpful toward easing tensions. They were very careful not to talk about any highs and lows of the relationship. They very clearly said there were no breakthroughs, nor did they anticipate any. It was more about keeping open lines of communication so that the two sides could talk about some of the easier stuff that they agreed on, as well as the harder stuff that they did not.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, let's bring in Emily Feng in Beijing. Emily, how was China approaching the summit? What were its objectives?

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: China was looking for a foreign policy win. It wanted to reduce tensions with the U.S., but it does not want to compromise on its political stances. So, for example, China's state news agency said Xi Jinping emphasized at these talks China would not tolerate any support for Taiwan independence. Xi reportedly also pushed back on the U.S. using human rights as a way to concern itself with what China considers internal affairs. But China does want relief from U.S. sanctions on Chinese companies. It wants to tamp down on growing anti-China sentiment in Washington, D.C. So Xi notably struck an amiable tone. Xi began the call, for example, by calling President Biden an old friend, a reference to the fact that he's known Biden since Biden was vice president, and they've traveled all over China together. So overall, the message and today - overall, the message in China today has been, Beijing wants to work with the U.S., but it will not compromise on certain core political goals.

MARTÍNEZ: How is the summit - how did it go over in China today? What are you seeing in terms of reactions?

FENG: It's all over Chinese state media, television, newspapers. And according to Chinese media, Xi likened the two leaders, him and Biden, as helmsmen guiding massive ships to avoid a crash. So they emphasized cooperation. But there was some split-screen messaging. To its own citizens, China really played up this growing self-confidence Beijing has. It emphasized, for example, that Biden recognized China as a, quote, "major power" for the last 5,000 years. And it cast Xi Jinping as this global leader who has succeeded in taming what still is a tense relationship. China went into these talks strong, and it now wants to project it's able to hold its own against the U.S.

MARTÍNEZ: Franco, the two nations just reached a climate agreement together in Glasgow promising to cut greenhouse gases. How big of a topic was that this summit?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, climate was a big issue. According to the White House, they both see this as, quote, an existential (ph) crisis and pledged to work together on it. That agreement they reached at the Glasgow summit was a commitment to reduce gas emissions, though it did not get deep into specifics. The two leaders also discussed the importance of working together to address global energy supplies. And I'll just add that the White House said they shared some notes on some other global challenges, including North Korea, Afghanistan and Iran.

MARTÍNEZ: Emily, one last thing. Are you expecting this to lead to changes in the U.S.-China relationship - maybe a new tone, even if there are some of the same core issues at play for both of them?

FENG: Potentially. It really was notable how convivial the two leaders were in these public opening remarks, calling each other friends and emphasizing their shared history together. But we really have to see whether if - whether this communication actually results in concrete policy changes because many of the sanctions and tariffs that the Trump administration put on Chinese officials and companies, those still remain. And Xi Jinping has continued to say, including today, China is not going to budge on real points of conflict if they get in the way of China's development. So this means that U.S.-China competition over technology and clashes with the U.S. for human rights will almost certainly continue.

Perhaps one test to see if there's a change in tone is the Winter Olympics kicking off in Beijing this February. There's some pressure on Biden to boycott those over human rights concerns. The talks reportedly did not come up at today's discussions, but let's see what the U.S. does in the games. That remains an open question.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing and Franco Ordoñez in Washington. Thanks to you both.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

FENG: Thanks, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
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