China has hailed a virtual meeting between President Xi Jinping and US leader Joe Biden, saying they had a candid and constructive exchange that sent a strong signal to the world.
The positive description of the meeting came in sharp contrast to heated exchanges between the two nations earlier this year. The talks appeared to mark what both sides hoped would be a turnaround in relations, though major differences remain.
“If China-US relations cannot return to the past, they should face the future,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said.
The video conference between the two leaders and senior aides lasted more than three hours and was their first formal meeting since Mr Biden took office in January.
Facing domestic pressures at home, both men seemed determined to lower the temperature in what for both sides is their most significant — and frequently turbulent — relationship on the global stage.
“As I’ve said before, it seems to me our responsibility as leaders of China and the United States is to ensure that the competition between our countries does not veer into conflict, whether intended or unintended,” the US president told Mr Xi at the start of their virtual meeting. “Just simple, straightforward competition.”
The White House set low expectations for the meeting, and no major announcements or even a joint statement were delivered, but officials said the two leaders had a substantive exchange.
Mr Xi greeted his US counterpart as an “old friend” and echoed Mr Biden’s cordial tone in his own opening remarks, saying: “China and the United States need to increase communication and co-operation.”
However, he held a tough line on Taiwan, which Chinese officials had signalled would be a top issue for them at the talks.
Tensions have heightened as the Chinese military has dispatched an increasing number of fighter jets near the self-ruled island, which Beijing considers part of its territory.
Mr Xi blamed the tensions on Taiwan seeking to attain independence through reliance on the US and some on the American side using Taiwan as a way to interfere in China, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
“This is extremely dangerous, it’s playing with fire, and they that play with fire will burn themselves,” Mr Xi was quoted as saying by the agency.
Chinese military forces held exercises last week near Taiwan in response to a visit by a US congressional delegation to the island.
The White House said Mr Biden reiterated he will abide by the longstanding US “One China” policy, which recognises Beijing but allows informal relations and defence ties with Taipei, but he also made clear that Washington “strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait”.
The relationship has had no shortage of tension since Mr Biden reached the White House in January and quickly criticised Beijing for human rights abuses against Uighurs in north-west China, suppression of democratic protests in Hong Kong, military aggression against Taiwan and more.
Mr Xi’s deputies, meanwhile, have lashed out against the White House for interfering in what they see as internal Chinese matters.
The White House in a statement said that Mr Biden again raised concerns about China’s human rights practices, and made clear that he sought to “protect American workers and industries from unfair trade and economic practices”.
The two also spoke about key regional challenges, including North Korea, Afghanistan and Iran.
Despite the tensions, there have been moments of progress in the China relationship in recent months.
Last week, the two countries pledged at the Cop26 summit to increase their co-operation and speed up action to rein in climate-damaging emissions.
The White House has said co-operation on climate change is in China’s interest, and the two nations should collaborate despite differences on other aspects of the relationship.
“None of this is a favour to either of our countries — what we do for one another — but it’s just responsible world leadership,” Mr Biden told Mr Xi. “You’re a major world leader, and so is the United States.”