Biden-Xi summit set a foundation despite stopping short of trade negotiations

November 17, 2021, 2:35 AM UTC

The United States and China disagree on many things, but after U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first (virtual) face-to-face meeting since Biden’s inauguration, there are signs that the two economic giants may slowly be moving down a more cooperative path. 

“The most important aspect is that we’re talking again,” said Ambassador Susan Schwab, strategic adviser for law firm Mayer Brown’s international trade practice and former U.S. trade representative, at the Fortune CEO Initiative in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday. “It’s sad to say that we weren’t talking much, and not talking at multiple levels.”

Amy Celico, who co-leads Albright Stonebridge Group’s China practice, stopped short of optimism about the summit. She instead described the meeting as a step forward, one that “put a floor underneath this really significant continued deterioration of the relationship, which was getting scary because it was focused not on the trade and economic issues that many of us focus on all the time, but on issues over Taiwan.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has described managing U.S.-China relations  as “the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century.” Earlier Tuesday at the CEO Initiative, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) called China a greater challenge for the U.S. than the Cold War.

The relationship between the U.S. and China grew more tense during the Trump administration. Before Biden took office, former president Donald Trump imposed sharp tariffs on Chinese imports, a move positioned as retaliation for unfair trading practices. 

“We seem to be back at that period of time when the primary lens with which we view one another is through mistrust and concern over how that country is going to impact my own future,” Celico said. “That just wasn’t true for decades.” 

During Monday’s meeting, Biden raised concerns about human rights practices in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong and reiterated U.S. opposition to changing the status quo as it relates to Taiwan, according to the White House.

“President Biden welcomed the opportunity to speak candidly and straightforwardly to President Xi about our intentions and priorities across a range of issues,” the White House said in a readout after the meeting. 

The U.S.-China Business Council had been hoping for a path forward to emerge on controversial tariffs driving up import prices, but clarity has yet to emerge there. 

“Understanding the other’s position is a good starting point, but the problems all remain,” the Council’s President Craig Allen said. “The path forward remains very unclear.” 

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