OPINION – Presidential Diplomacy and the Biden-Xi Meeting

The video call between US President Joe Biden and the Chinese President Xi Jinping on March 18 could be seen as Biden’s assertive diplomatic lobbying efforts at the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), whose position on the Russian-Ukrainian conflicts has already made American officials highly concerned and deeply worried.

The readout of President Biden’s call with President Xi, according to the Whitehouse briefing, focuses on firstly the Ukrainian crisis and secondly the US position on Taiwan. It said that “the conversation focused on Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine,” and that Biden detailed to US efforts to prevent the crisis and to impose “costs” on Russia. Furthermore, Biden “described the implications and consequences if China provides material support to Russia” and “underscored his support for diplomatic resolution to the crisis.” The last part of the readout covered Biden’s reiterated position of the US policy on Taiwan, namely the US policy on Taiwan has not changed and the US continues to oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo.

From the content of the readout, the foremost concern of the US government was whether the PRC might provide material support to Russia in the Ukrainian conflicts. Biden clearly issued the US warning of the implications and consequences if China does so. Clearly, the US government was uncomfortable with the content of the Sino-Russia Joint Statement reached between the PRC President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 4, during which Section Three of the Joint Statement mentioned firstly the Russian affirmation of Taiwan as an inalienable part of China and then both the Russian and Chinese side’s opposition to NATO’s further enlargement. To the US, this Sino-Russian Joint Statement in February was almost approaching an alliance although both the Chinese and Russian sides claimed to establish a closer partnership.

The US discomfort with the Chinese position was further demonstrated after the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian conflicts during which the PRC side has not used the term “invasion” to refer to the Russian military operation. To add fuel to the fire, some US officials told the American media that Russia requested the Chinese military equipment and assistance after the Russian-Ukrainian conflicts. The PRC Foreign Ministry reacted to such “disinformation” very swiftly and strongly. On March 14, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said: “The US has been spreading disinformation targeting China on the Ukraine issue, with malicious intentions.”

The US side spread such “disinformation” at a highly sensitive time when senior Chinese foreign policy adviser Yang Jiechi met US national security adviser Jake Sullivan at a hotel in Rome on March 14. Their meeting was a rocky one, with both sides stating their positions assertively. During the seven-hour meeting between Yang and Sullivan, the US side raised a whole range of issues affecting US-China relations, including Ukraine according to a very brief readout of the Whitehouse. 

However, the PRC Foreign Ministry’s report on the Yang-Sullivan meeting was more detailed, saying that the two sides had candid discussions on not only Sino-US relations but also the Chinese position on Taiwan. Specifically, the Foreign Ministry’s website mentioned that Yang pointed to the need for the US side to stick to several principles: (1) “not seeking a new Cold War, (2) not seeking to change China’s system; (3) not seeking to target the revitalization of its alliances against China; (4) not supporting ‘Taiwan independence’; and (5) having no intention to have a conflict with China.” Yang, according to the Foreign Ministry’s report, expressed the hope that the US side would follow on the commitments made by President Biden. Then Yang reiterated the Chinese sovereignty position on Taiwan, saying that the one-China principle is the prerequisite for the establishment of Sino-US diplomatic ties. However, the recent US actions “are obviously not consistent with its statements.” Clearly, the PRC side is unhappy with the way in which the US has recently handled the Taiwan issue.

Yang Jiechi, according to the Foreign Ministry’s report, also stated China’s position on Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, which belong to China’s internal affairs, and which does not allow for external interference. Again, it is crystal clear that the PRC did not feel comfortable with the ways in which the US handled the internal matters of China, including Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong.

While the Whitehouse readout on Jake Sullivan’s talk with Yang Jiechi mentioned the 
“substantial discussion of Russia’s war against Ukraine,” the PRC Foreign Ministry put the Ukrainian discussion just briefly in the last section of its report. Clearly, the priorities of the two countries differed significantly: China places far more importance on the US handling of the Taiwan issue while the US stresses China’s handling of the Russian-Ukrainian conflicts.

After the Sullivan-Yang meeting, the Whitehouse Press Secretary Jen Psaki responded to the media question by focusing on the Ukrainian conflicts. She said in the afternoon of March 14: “I think what we have conveyed and what was conveyed by our national security adviser in this meeting, is that should they (the Chinese) provide military or other assistance that of course violates sanctions or, or supports the war efforts, that there will be significant consequences.”

Psaki’s position was repeated in Biden’s video call to President Xi. Clearly, the US side felt disturbed by the intelligence reports it had received on the Russian request for the PRC military assistance. Both China and Russia quickly denied such Russian request for Chinese assistance, especially the Russian side in which Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that it was fake news and that “Russia possesses its own independent potential to continue the operation.” However, it was reported on March 18 that the European Union received intelligence on the Russian request for Chinese military assistance. 

It is noteworthy that the Xinhuareport on March 19 covered the Xi-Biden meeting in a far more in-depth way that the Whitehouse readout. The Xinhua report said that Biden reiterated the US “does not seek a new Cold War with China,” “does not aim to change China’s system,” does not use the American alliance to target at China, does not support ‘Taiwan independence,’ and does not seek a conflict with China. These reiterated principles from the US side had already been raised by Yang Jiechi during his meeting with Jake Sullivan. Moreover, the Xinhua report pointed to President Xi’s emphasis that China and US should shoulder the international responsibilities of working for world peace and tranquility, and that both sides should increase communication and dialogue in all fields. Most importantly, President Xi took President Biden’s emphasis that the US does not support Taiwan independence “very seriously.” Furthermore, Xi added that some people in the US have sent a wrong signal to “Taiwan independence” forces – “a very dangerous” phenomenon according to him. Finally, President Xi mentioned that there will continue to be “differences between China and the US, but the challenge is “to keep such differences under control” because “a steadily growing relationship is in the interest of both sides.”

On the Ukrainian issue, President Xi told Biden that China does not want to witness such a conflict-ridden scenario, that China “stands for peace and opposes war,” that sanctions “would only make the people suffer,” and that China is ready to provide humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. President Xi appealed to the US and NATO to have dialogue with Russia.

Clearly, the PRC side attaches far more importance to the US policy toward Taiwan than anything else. President Xi reiterated China’s position on Ukraine and revealed the misunderstanding on the part of the US side on the Chinese policy.

Analytically, Biden’s video call to Xi combined a mix of soft and hard gestures. The soft side was Biden’s reiteration and affirmation that the US does not support Taiwan’s pro-independence forces – a position that the PRC side has found inconsistent and questionable. On the other hand, Biden warned China of the consequences if the PRC aids Russia militarily and logistically on the Russian-Ukrainian conflicts – a position that the Chinese side thought the US spread disinformation. Profound mutual distrust persists in the US-China relations.In conclusion, Biden’s video call could be seen as a diplomatic lobbying effort on China, ensuring that the PRC side would not aid Russia militarily and logistically during the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian conflicts. Biden’s diplomatic offensive was made immediately after the rocky discussion and political posturing between Jake Sullivan and Yang Jiechi on the March 14 meeting. The US strategy on the Russian-Ukrainian conflicts is clear: it must woo the PRC side to adopt a more neutral position instead of shifting to a more pro-Russian stance. The PRC side, however, clearly sees the resolution of the question of Taiwan’s future as a more urgent issue than the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. As such, the Biden-Xi meeting also gave a golden opportunity for President Xi to woo the US side to adopt a more pro-reunification stance than ever before. The politics of diplomatic lobbying from both sides have become prominent in the recent US-China encounters