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Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with then US vice-president Joe Biden in 2013. They world leaders have not met in person since Biden became US President in January. Photo: AP

ExclusiveChina-US tension: Xi-Biden meet may be further delayed as Beijing considers a virtual G20 seat

  • If they fail to meet in Rome in October, it would be the longest delay before a newly inaugurated US president met his Chinese counterpart since 1997
  • Politburo Standing Committee members have not taken any overseas trips since the pandemic and Xi has not hosted a foreign state leader since March 2020
The prospect of Chinese President Xi Jinping holding a face-to-face meeting with his American counterpart Joe Biden on the sidelines of the Group of 20 Summit in Italy this autumn have dimmed, according to sources familiar with arrangements.

While Beijing is yet to reach a final decision, the leadership leans towards China’s president attending via a video link rather than flying to Rome for the summit on October 30-31. Virtual attendance would mean there would be no opportunity at the summit for the Chinese and US leaders to hold their first face-to-face meeting since Biden became US president on January 20.

While any decision for Xi to not go to Rome for the summit would be partly because of safety concerns over the coronavirus pandemic, it also reflects the lack of progress made to restart the stalled China-US relationship.
US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman added China at the last minute to her trip to Asia in July and both sides exchanged “candid views”. But there is no word of further talks between the countries’ top diplomats. A preparatory session between the countries’ top representatives is normally necessary if the two presidents are to meet.

If Xi and Biden fail to meet at the G20 summit in Rome, it would be the longest delay before a newly inaugurated US president met his Chinese counterpart since 1997. Given that there is no other obvious opportunity for the two to meet after October, it may well be the first time there has been no summit between a newly inaugurated US president and China’s top leader since 1993.

Bill Clinton met Jiang Zemin in November 1993 on the sidelines of the Apec summit in Seattle – almost 10 months after Clinton was sworn for in his first term. That was the longest interval after the China-US relationship was fully restored following the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. It was a frosty meeting and Clinton did not “smile once” throughout the session, according to the Associated Press.

But when Clinton secured his second term in 1997, he gave Jiang a grand state visit to the US in October. The Chinese president spent nine days touring the country and it was the first state visit by a Chinese head of state to the US since president Li Xiannian’s trip in 1985.

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In 2001, a month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Jiang warmly received the newly inaugurated US president George W Bush in Shanghai, promising to work with Bush to build a “constructive relationship of cooperation”.

Bush returned the favour and hosted a state visit for Jiang’s successor Hu Jintao in New York in September after winning his second term in 2005.

Hu and the next US president, Barack Obama, who was inaugurated in January 2009, first met on the sidelines of the G20 financial summit in London a few months later on April 1. Obama received Xi Jinping on June 8, 2013, in California, after winning his second term.

US President George W. Bush (left) greets China’s then-president Jiang Zemin in Shanghai on 19 October 2001. Photo: AFP
In 2017, three months after Donald Trump’s unexpected ascendance to power, Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan flew to Florida and met the US president at Mar-a-Lago.

While Biden and Xi have known each other for more than a decade, a face-to-face meeting between the leaders of the two largest countries in the world is still important and carries huge symbolic meaning.

Xi, along with the other six members of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, has not taken any overseas trip since the onset of the pandemic last year, nor has he hosted any foreign state leader in Beijing since his reception of Pakistan’s President Arif Alvi in March last year.

State leaders usually take the opportunity of multilateral summits to line up bilateral meetings. Xi and Trump had agreed to reach a truce on the China-US trade war on the sidelines of the G20 summits in 2018 and 2019.

“We need our leaders to meet face to face,” said one of the sources, saying Beijing might miss a chance to mend ties with the West and may become more isolated from the rest of the world.

Another source does not rule out the possibility of a last-minute change.

“We are still in the process of coordination and exploring the possibility outside of in-person participation,” said the source who requested anonymity.

Amid the heightened confrontation on almost all fronts, there have been expectations that a possible sit-down on the sidelines of the G20 between Xi and Biden could help to set tone for how trust will be rebuilt and conflicts will be managed.

The two leaders have not talked to each other since their phone conversation on February 11. Animosity has continued to rise over Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the South China Sea and technology-related issues.

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The White House in June signalled an interest in holding direct talks between the leaders “if the conditions are right and the circumstances are warranted”, while China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the resumption of high-level dialogue would “depend on whether the US is sincere”.

With the ongoing progress of Covid-19 vaccination around the world, border controls have been eased and diplomatic trips have picked up. But China has adopted a zero-case strategy in the face of the pandemic and kept strict border controls.
The South China Morning Post has also learnt that Angela Merkel, the outgoing German chancellor, had planned to visit China earlier this summer as part of her farewell tour but Beijing and Berlin failed to agree on a bubble arrangement.
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Beijing now mulling Xi-Biden video link, not in-person talksBeijing mulls Xi-Biden video link, not direct talks