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Biden and Xi begin ‘candid and direct’ virtual meeting

President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping have begun their much-anticipated virtual meeting. The talks started shortly after 7:45 p.m. EST, according to reports from Washington and Beijing.

The two leaders, who are speaking for the third time this year, will communicate via interpreters in an encounter that a senior administration official said Sunday will “run several hours.”

The meeting is expected to produce statements of joint resolve to reduce bilateral tensions heightened by months of rhetorical sparring over myriad issues, including Taiwan, human rights and the origin of Covid, as well as what a D.C.-based diplomat described as potential “sweeteners” to improve trade ties.

Biden is 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,” a senior administration official told reporters Sunday.

Both sides have publicly downplayed the event’s ambitions and kept its agenda under wraps as part of a bilateral strategy to lower expectations of a significant rapprochement or big deliverables.

But beyond performative goodwill gestures, people familiar with preparation for the meeting say it may produce a handful of short- and medium-term initiatives developed by joint working groups to reduce friction as well as possible alignment signaling on wider geopolitical concerns, including North Korea and Iran.

Biden first spoke with Xi on Feb. 10 for two hours and again on Sept. 9 for 90 minutes.

“President Biden underscored his fundamental concerns about Beijing’s coercive and unfair economic practices, crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and increasingly assertive actions in the region, including toward Taiwan,” the White House said after the February call.

Biden is basing his latest engagement with Xi on a recognition that previous U.S. efforts to steer changes to the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s autocratic domestic policies and expansionist foreign policy have failed. “Unlike previous approaches, with respect to China, the Biden administration is not trying to change China through bilateral engagement [because] we don’t think that’s realistic,” the administration official said. “Rather, we’re trying to shape the international environment in a way that is favorable to us and our allies and partners.”

The one-on-one is particularly important after Xi’s “continued centralization of power” at last week’s Sixth Plenum meeting, the official said. But the timing of the leaders’ meeting, hours after Biden signed into law a $1 trillion infrastructure package, means “Biden is coming into the meeting with a strong hand as well,” said the official.

A statement released Monday by the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., described the U.S.-China relationship as being at “a crossroads” and stressed the meeting’s global implications. “President Xi will have a candid, in-depth and full exchange of views with President Biden on strategic issues shaping the future of China-U.S. relations … in a bid to steer the bilateral ties back on the right track of sound and steady development,” the embassy said.

The senior administration official said that Biden will also raise transnational “alignment” between the two countries, including on health security and action to address the climate crisis. But Biden will reject any attempt by Xi to link China’s cooperation on climate to progress on specific bilateral issues. “Taking bold action on an existential crisis like climate change is in [China’s] interest and … is not a favor to us,” the official said.

The U.S. president will be “candid and direct” regarding issues of “divergence,” including human rights and Taiwan as well as U.S. perceptions of Chinese “economic coercion” and “strategic risk” such as Chinese cyberspace activities, said the official.

Biden’s concerns about possible miscalculations that could lead to unintended U.S.-China military conflict puts the issue of “guardrails,” hinged to improved bilateral communications, on the agenda.

“All of this really makes it all the more important to have the leaders sit down face-to-face and have a real discussion about the nature of the relationship, our terms and expectations for it, how to conduct the competition in a way that is competitive but doesn’t lead to conflict, and how to find ways to manage the risks that we see in that competition,” the official said.

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