No one thought that Monday’s three-and-a-half hour “virtual meeting” between President Biden and General Secretary Xi, convened at Biden’s request, was going to result in any breakthroughs. Likewise, it’s not surprising that Biden apparently took a kid-glove approach with the Chinese Communist Party chief, who is leading an ongoing assault on international security, human dignity, and democracy.
The meeting, the White House said, was all about urging the construction of “guardrails” in the U.S.-China competition, urging China to act responsibly, and setting the stage for future cooperation. Meanwhile, Xi spent the previous week cementing his perch atop the Chinese party-state, earning adoption of a resolution that smooths the path toward rule for life and a mandate to bring about “reunification” with Taiwan.
Biden administration officials told reporters that the president was coming into the meeting in a strong position after getting his infrastructure bill through Congress. What went unmentioned was the delay on passing the annual defense authorization act and the massive bipartisan investment in research and technologies, such as semiconductors, central to meeting the China challenge. The White House and congressional Democrats have prioritized their domestic agenda over national security-related legislation. Unsurprisingly, these officials also didn’t mention Biden’s dreadful political standing.
The few concrete developments that resulted from the meeting hint at worrisome bids for closer engagement, in steps toward potentially reprising the failed approach to China that was abandoned by Donald Trump.
National-security adviser Jake Sullivan, speaking about the call at the Brookings Institution Tuesday morning, mentioned that the two sides directed their teams to coordinate on ensuring that “global energy supply and price volatility do not imperil the global economic recovery.” Biden says the two sides set up four working groups on various issues. And Chinese state media reported that each of the two sides will start issuing visas to the other’s journalists, following freezes on that practice. This is a concession by U.S. officials: “Journalists” from the People’s Republic are actually apparatchiks writing for state media outlets. As Biden rolls out the red carpet for Beijing’s propagandists, U.S. outlets re-admitted to China are almost certain to face undue restrictions on their work.
For the better part of the first ten months of the Biden administration, officials emphasized a strategic framework within which Washington would compete “vigorously” with Beijing, while seeking cooperation on climate change, global public health, and other issues. Early on, there was a greater focus on the competition side of the ledger, which meant building on the tougher-minded approach of Trump officials (although Trump himself often blew rhetorical kisses at Xi): a forward-leaning approach to Taiwan, unapologetic condemnations of the CCP’s genocide of Uyghurs and assault on democracy in Hong Kong, and clear-eyed discussion of Beijing’s malfeasance whenever U.S. officials met their Chinese counterparts.
The Chinese officials obviously did not take well to any of that and, starting this summer, stonewalled Biden administration bids for dialogue. They almost stood up Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman when she visited China in July and wouldn’t put the party’s top defense official on the phone with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Washington lost its nerve after a few months, and, in explaining why Biden sought an additional phone call with Xi in September, U.S. officials said that Biden’s goal was to prevent competition from veering into conflict.
At the same time, efforts to reach an accord with Beijing heated up in the lead-up to the COP26 U.N. climate conference, which began at the start of November. In the waning days of that gathering, John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart announced a new U.S.-China accord on climate cooperation. More consequentially, the two sides inaugurated a new “working group” on these issues. Using this new dialogue as leverage, Beijing can presumably use the threat of walking away to warn the administration off actions contrary to its interests.
Already, Kerry has conspicuously ignored Beijing’s rampant human-rights violations, even those connected with the solar-panel industry in Xinjiang, saying in Glasgow, “that’s not my lane.” Although Biden did mention human-rights abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, he apparently didn’t speak specifically about the party’s crimes against humanity targeting Uyghurs and other minorities. And vague mentions of global public health suggest that he also didn’t press Xi hard on the origins of the coronavirus, amid Chinese stonewalling of international efforts to investigate the outset of the pandemic in Wuhan.
On a trip to New Hampshire Tuesday, Biden once again muddled the U.S. position on Taiwan when he responded to a question about whether he and Xi made progress on that issue, saying, “It’s independent. It makes its own decisions.” He later walked back the comment, clarifying that there’s been no policy change and, “We are not encouraging independence.”
Beijing has zero interest in the true relationship-building sought by the administration, as its saber-rattling around Taiwan and its ongoing historic arms buildup attest. We should not, as Jen Psaki put it upon news of the Chinese hypersonic-missile test, “welcome the competition.” China’s worsening conduct represents a threat to our national security and international peace, and Biden needs to treat it as such.