Washington/Beijing – U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping agreed at a virtual meeting to look into the possibility of arms control talks, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Tuesday.
Biden and Xi agreed to “look to begin to carry forward discussion on strategic stability,” Sullivan said in a reference to U.S. concerns about China’s nuclear and missile buildup.
“You will see at multiple levels an intensification of the engagement to ensure that there are guardrails around this competition so that it doesn’t veer off into conflict,” Sullivan said in a Brookings Institution webinar.
Sullivan did not elaborate on what form the discussions on strategic stability could take, but went on to say:
“That is not the same as what we have in the Russian context with the formal strategic stability dialogue. That is far more mature, has a much deeper history to it. There’s less maturity to that in the U.S.-China relationship, but the two leaders did discuss these issues and it is now incumbent on us to think about the most productive way to carry it forward.”
Washington has repeatedly urged China to join it and Russia in a new arms control treaty.
Beijing says the arsenals of the other two countries dwarf its own. It says it is ready to conduct bilateral dialogues on strategic security “on the basis of equality and mutual respect.”
The virtual meeting was the two leaders’ most in-depth exchange since Biden took office in January.
Although they spoke for about 3½ hours, the two leaders appeared to do little to narrow differences that have raised fears of an eventual conflict between the two superpowers.
The United States had envisioned the meeting putting stability into a relationship increasingly troubled over a litany of issues, including what Washington views as Beijing’s aggressive actions toward Chinese-claimed Taiwan.
Asked if there was any progress on tensions over the self-ruled island, Biden said: “Yes. We made very clear we support the Taiwan act and that’s it.”
Biden was referring to the Taiwan Relations Act, a U.S. law that requires the United States to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself, though Washington has long followed a policy of “strategic ambiguity” on whether it would intervene militarily in the event of a Chinese attack.
“I said that they have to decide … Taiwan, not us,” Biden added later. “We are not encouraging independence.”
Xi told Biden in their meeting that China would take “decisive measures” in the event that Taiwan crosses Beijing’s red line in seeking independence.
In the meeting Biden pressed his Chinese counterpart on human rights and Xi warned that China would respond to provocations on Taiwan.
Japan also weighed in on the meeting, saying that it would remain vigilant against what it views as China’s hegemonic ambitions despite Tuesday’s Biden-Xi talks, government officials in Tokyo said.
The Japanese government said it welcomed the dialogue between the United States and China. But at the same time, Tokyo said it plans to continue to pursue a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” region while bolstering its defense capabilities.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno stressed that stable relations between the U.S. and China “are very important.”
“We’ll continue to cooperate with the United States in various fields, and call on China to fulfill its responsibility as a great power,” Matsuno said.
However, a senior Foreign Ministry official said that the virtual meeting “will not change anything,” since it was widely believed to have been chiefly intended to stave off the possibility of unexpected conflict erupting between the two powers.
“Tensions in the region will not ease,” a Japanese government source said.
China has continued to take provocative actions around the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Beijing also claims the uninhabited islets and calls them the Diaoyu.
Another senior Foreign Ministry official said the moves required Japan to keep its guard up.
“Japan must maintain a minimum possible presence on both the military and economic fronts,” the official said.
In terms of the future of Sino-U.S. ties, Sullivan said that clear communication between the two countries so as to avoid misunderstandings will be “an important and intensive aspect of work between our militaries, between our national security councils and between our diplomats.”
“And so you will see at multiple levels an intensification of the engagement to ensure that there are guardrails around this competition so that it doesn’t veer off into conflict,” he said.
A senior U.S. official said in a briefing after the meeting that the U.S. aim was not to ease tensions, nor necessarily was that the result, and there were no breakthroughs to report.
China’s state media cited unnamed Chinese Foreign Ministry sources as saying the two sides would ease restrictions on access for journalists from each other’s countries.
The China Daily newspaper said a consensus on journalist visas, among other points, was reached before the virtual meeting.
A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department gave similar details, saying China had committed to permit U.S. journalists already in the country to depart freely and return, which they had previously been unable to do. It said the United States planned to facilitate similar treatment for Chinese journalists.
U.S. officials said Biden and Xi did not discuss the Beijing Olympics to be held in February, although there had been speculation that during the virtual summit, Xi would invite Biden to participate in a ceremony at the global sports event.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the Biden administration is expected to announce that neither the U.S. president nor any other U.S. government officials will attend the games, citing several sources familiar with the plans.
The “diplomatic boycott,” which will still allow U.S. athletes to compete, is intended as a way to respond to the Chinese government’s human rights abuses without impacting players, the newspaper said.
Although the administration technically has not finalized this decision, a formal recommendation has been made to the president and he is expected to approve it before the end of the month, it said.
The administration will inform allies but leave them to make their own decisions on whether to follow the U.S. lead, according to The Washington Post.
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