United States President Joe Biden will tell Chinese leader Xi Jinping at a virtual meeting on Monday aimed at reducing the chances of a superpower conflict China must “play by the rules of the road” like a responsible nation, a senior US administration official said.
The video dialogue, initiated by Biden and expected by the United States to run for several hours on Monday evening, Washington time, will be about setting terms for future US-China competition, the official told reporters.
Both sides hope the most extensive talks between the leaders since Biden became president will make the relationship less acrimonious.
The United States and China, the world’s biggest economies, disagree on the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, China’s expanding nuclear arsenal and Beijing’s stepped up pressure on Taiwan, among other issues.
“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,” the official told reporters, citing a litany of U.S. concerns, including China’s economic “coercion” of US allies and alleged human rights abuses.
Biden is focused on writing those rules “in a way that is favorable to our interests and our values and those of our allies and partners,” the official said, adding that talks with China must be “substantive and not symbolic.”
“This is not a meeting where we expect deliverables to be coming out,” the official added.
United States officials have played down the possibility of progress on trade, where China is lagging in a commitment to buy $200 billion more in US goods and services. US tariffs on Chinese goods that Beijing and business groups hope to be scaled back, are not on Biden’s agenda.
The official declined to answer questions on whether the United States will send officials to the Beijing Winter Olympics in February. Activists and US lawmakers have urged the Biden administration to boycott the Olympics.
Xi, looking ahead to the Games and a key Communist Party Congress next year where he is expected to secure an unprecedented third term, is also keen to avoid heightened tensions with the United States.
But he and Biden last week outlined competing visions, with Biden stressing the US commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, which Washington says faces increasing Chinese “coercion”, while Xi warned against a return to Cold War tensions.
“Both sides hold the other with deep suspicion and are taking substantive steps to compete against the other in economics, security and politics,” said Scott Kennedy, a China expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Democrats in Congress want Biden to make nuclear risk reduction measures with China a top priority, after the Pentagon reported that China was significantly expanding its nuclear weapons and missile programmes.
Beijing argues its arsenal is dwarfed by the United States’ and Russia’s, and says it is ready for dialogue if Washington reduces its nuclear stockpile to China’s level.
Taiwan is likely to play heavily in the talks, with Beijing and Washington increasingly clashing over the self-ruled island, which China claims as its own.
The Biden administration has been trying to carve out more space for Taiwan in the international system. Beijing has vowed to bring the island back under mainland control, by force if necessary.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week that Washington and its allies would take unspecified “action” if China were to use force to alter the Taiwan status quo, further muddying the long-held US policy of “strategic ambiguity” as to whether the United States would respond militarily.
In a call with Blinken on Saturday, senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi warned Washington against sending the wrong signals Biden and China’s Xi will hold virtual meeting to Taiwan pro-independence forces.
Republican Senator Bill Hagerty, who served as ambassador to Japan under Trump, said Biden needed to show a firm hand with Xi.
“This is President Biden’s opportunity to show steel, show strength on America’s side, to make it clear that we are going to stand by our allies and that we will not endorse or condone the malign behavior that China has engaged in,” he said.