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The China-US virtual meeting between their top leaders helped steady bilateral relations

By Yu Xiaodong Updated Feb.1

On November 16, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart President Joe Biden held their first formal virtual summit since Biden took office in early 2021. The talks lasted 3.5 hours and are widely expected to stabilize the world’s most important bilateral relations.  

Both leaders highlighted the importance of the bilateral relationship and expressed willingness to manage risks between the world’s two largest powers. According to a statement issued by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Xi said that China and the US were like two “giant ships” in the ocean, and need to “keep a steady hand on the tiller” so that they do not lose direction or speed and collide. Xi described the “reopening and development of the China-US relations as “the most important event in international relations over the past 50 years,”and finding the “right way to get along” for the two sides as “the most important event in international relations in the coming 50 years.”  

According to the released White House readout, Biden stressed to establish “common-sense guardrails to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict and to keep lines of communication open.”  

The two leaders also identified some global challenges where the two countries could cooperate, including the issues of the global energy security, climate change and the public health crisis. 
There are signs of positive changes on the China-US relations before and after the virtual summit. On November 10, just two days before the conclusion of the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties, or COP 26, China and the US signed the Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s. The two sides agreed to set up a Working Group on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s which will meet regularly to discuss “enhancing concrete actions in this decade.”  

Before the meeting, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the US is willing to consider lowering tariffs against China imposed by the Trump administration. On November 18, Shu Jueting, spokeswoman for China’s Ministry of Commerce said the virtual summit has “set the tone” for communication between the two sides on trade and the economy. 
“The two leaders helped steer bilateral ties back on track by setting the strategic vision for the bilateral relationship,” said Ruan Zongze, executive vice president and senior fellow at the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS).  

Thorny issues will put the bilateral relations under test. Biden said the US remained committed to one-China policy. A senior White House official confirmed after the meeting that Taiwan independence is “not something that the United States supports.” China has repeatedly stressed that the one-China principle and the three ChinaUS joint communiques are the political foundation of the bilateral relations, and the so-called “Taiwan Relations Act” and the “Six Assurances” are “illegal and invalid.”  

From December 9-10, the US hosted the virtual Summit for Democracy. China’s Foreign Ministry criticized the summit as “inciting division and confrontation,” and released a report on December 5 on the “deficiencies and abuse of democracy” in the US. 
The White House announced recently that the US “will not send any diplomatic or official representation to the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games.” The UK, Canada and Australia declared similar decisions. Wang Wenbin, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson responded on December 9 that the Olympic Games is “not a stage for the posturing and grandstanding of politicians.” 
The conversation between Xi and Biden was a “good beginning,” and “they now have to be followed by concrete discussions that lead in a direction both presidents have affirmed they want to pursue,” Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State and National Security Advisor, noted at a Bloomberg Forum in Singapore.