Joe Biden’s first trip abroad as president saw him meet with scores of U.S. allies as well as a top adversary, leaving him poised to confront the country he’s called America’s most serious global competitor: China and its leader, Xi Jinping.
The world’s second-largest economy was on the agenda throughout Biden’s meetings the past week with the Group of Seven industrialized nations, NATO, the European Union and even Russian President Vladimir Putin — whose country, the U.S. president remarked, is “getting squeezed by China.”
Biden has long said China would be at the core of his administration’s foreign policy. Yet with Putin’s government accused of interfering in U.S. elections and harboring hackers who targeted America’s critical infrastructure, Biden said he needed to establish some “rules of the road” and predictability in the relationship with Russia.
Now Beijing becomes the focus. U.S.-China ties, however, are far more complex and consequential for the American economy than the relationship with Russia, and Biden’s window to meet and establish a productive relationship with Xi for the years ahead is closing.
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on Thursday confirmed that planning is now underway for more extensive talks with Beijing. He didn’t say whether an actual meeting between Biden and Xi is in the works, though one possibility is during the Group of 20 summit in Rome in October.
Throughout his European trip this week and earlier meetings with groups like the Quad — the U.S., Japan, India and Australia — the Biden administration has sought to rally allies in a show of force against what it considers Beijing’s most egregious policies.
“The Biden administration’s priority has been to strengthen ties with like-minded countries as part of a broader strategy to persuade Beijing to recalibrate and revise its policies,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Surprise in Beijing
That approach has drawn attention in Beijing. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said this week, following Biden’s push for the G-7 to agree on a strategy to counter China’s influence, that the “U.S. is ill and very ill indeed.”
“The G-7 had better take its pulse and come up with a prescription,” he added.
The state of play is a surprise in Beijing. After four years of tumult under former President Donald Trump, who praised Xi repeatedly until the Covid-19 outbreak started to take a toll on the U.S., officials in Beijing thought Biden would bring a softer touch to bilateral relations. Instead, he’s kept China on the defensive, even keeping in place tariffs established by Trump.
“There are real questions that need to be asked about what will follow this rhetoric,” said David Feith, a researcher at the Center for a New American Security and former deputy assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs under Trump.
“But it does appear significant that President Biden has strongly signaled to his own administration and to other governments that he wants to prioritize China competition in U.S. policy and in U.S. diplomacy,” he said.
On Thursday, Liu Pengyu, a spokesman for China’s embassy in Washington said, “China and the United States have maintained communication on dialogues and exchanges at all levels.”
In Europe this week, Biden sought to rally Group of Seven and NATO leaders around an agenda that included re-opening probes into the origin of the coronavirus, pushing back on Beijing’s heavy hand in places like Hong Kong and Xinjiang and calling for a Western competitor for Xi’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.
One of the trip’s headline announcements — a truce in the years-long feud between Boeing and Airbus — was aimed in part at China. The deal will “protect jobs and protect technology in Europe and the United States against China’s predatory practices,” Sullivan said Thursday.
Biden said one goal of his trip this week was to “make it clear to Putin and to China that Europe and the United States are tight, and the G-7 is going to move.” The G-7’s joint statement criticized the use of “forced labor” in industries dominated by China and created a task force on spurring infrastructure development.
Despite pushback from Germany’s Angela Merkel, Italy’s Mario Draghi and France’s Emmanuel Macron, Biden and his aides said the statement was the bloc’s toughest yet on Beijing.
“I think we’re in a contest — not with China per se, but a contest with autocrats, autocratic governments around the world, as to whether or not democracies can compete with them in the rapidly changing 21st century,” Biden said after the summit.
Part of that contest includes a domestic agenda aimed at competing with China, such as beefed up spending on infrastructure and a focus on supply chain security around semiconductors and other strategic sectors.
Another element involves closer coordination with allies in Asia and beyond.
“We believe that the best way to engage a more assertive China is to work with allies, partners and friends,” the White House’s top official for Asia, Kurt Campbell, told an event in May, adding that “the best China policy really is a good Asia policy.”
Still, at some point, the two leaders will need to meet. The aim to directly engage with Xi stems in part from Biden’s belief that there’s no substitute for leader-level discussions and personal engagement.
“The notion that President Biden will engage in the coming months with President Xi in some way to take stock of where we are in the relationship and to ensure that we have that kind of direct communication that we found valuable with President Putin yesterday, we’re very much committed to that,” Sullivan told reporters Thursday. “It’s now just a question of when and how.”
The G20 summit will be one opportunity for the two leaders to meet. This year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit will be hosted virtually by New Zealand, depriving Biden and Xi of another potential venue for a meeting.
In the meantime, tensions continue to build as the two countries clash over everything from technology to China’s militarization of the disputed South China Sea and the status of Taiwan.
The personal relationship between the U.S. and Chinese leaders has also frayed. Biden met Xi repeatedly over the years, including as vice president, and until recently touted what he said was his friendship with the Chinese leader. He gave a harsher assessment on the campaign trail last year, calling Xi a “thug” who “doesn’t have a democratic — with-a-small-‘d’ — bone in his body.”
On Wednesday in Geneva, he indicated a more combative relationship is here to stay. After a Fox News reporter suggested Biden call Xi “old friend to old friend” in a question about investigating the origins of the coronavirus, the president snapped back.
“Let’s get something straight,” Biden said. “We know each other well. We’re not old friends. It’s just pure business.”