Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on President Biden’s Virtual Meeting with President Xi of the People’s Republic of China
(November 15, 2021)
MODERATOR: Thanks so much. And good evening — or good morning, everyone. Thanks for your patience.
As you’re aware, today, we are — we’ll be reading out President Biden’s virtual bilateral meeting with President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China.
For the ground rules, this call is on background and attributed to a “senior administration official.” And the contents will be embargoed until the end of the call. And by joining this call, you are agreeing to those ground rules. Again, it will be attributed to a “senior administration official.”
For your reference, our speaker today is [senior administration official], who will be referred to hereinafter as a “senior administration official.”
With that, I will turn it over to my colleague for some opening remarks. Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great. Thanks so much. And hey, everybody. Thanks so much for your patience. Sorry to keep you all waiting. I’ll give you, sort of, a rundown in a second. But this evening’s meeting went long, so we, again, apologize for keeping you all waiting on the line.
First of all, I just want to make sure you’ve had a chance to see — or, if you haven’t, just to sort of direct you to the on-the-record statement that we’ve just released with the full readout of the President’s meeting with Xi Jinping. I’m not going to read through it all, but definitely would urge you all to take a look at that.
I’m just going to try and add a little bit of a — of additional, sort of, atmospherics and color, and lay out a couple of, you know, points of conversation, I think, that were the most interesting and salient. And then, you know, happy to take a couple of your questions, recognizing that it’s late.
So, first of all, I mean, tonight was a long session. It was it was longer than expected. They talked for about three and a half hours. It was broken up into two sessions with a brief break in between.
I would say that, obviously, while meeting virtually is not quite the same as meeting in person, it certainly was very different than just a phone call. The two leaders really did have a substantial back-and-forth and ability to sort of interact with one another in the way that they’ve not quite had in the phone calls. I think it’s much more difficult when you’re just audio only. And so, I think it really did facilitate a different kind of conversation than what they’ve been able to do just by phone, even though they weren’t physically in the same room with one another.
I would say that the conversation was respectful and straightforward, and it was open, which is really the kinds of characteristics that has been the case with the previous conversations between them as well. They didn’t just stick to the scripts that they had in front of them. They did, at various points, move back and forth between different agenda items, pick up on things that one another said. And at times, you know, talked about — recounted stories back to one another, both as points of agreement and disagreement, even quoting each other’s words. Again, in both contexts, both agreement and disagreement.
You know, I would say, again, as we talked about on the call last night in advance of today’s meeting, the meeting itself was really about the two leaders discussing ways to manage the competition between the United States and China responsibly and ways to establish guardrails for that competition. And that was a theme throughout the conversation this evening.
There was a — the competition was substantial across a broad range of topics, and it was substantive on a lot of different pieces. There was a number of conversations about the long-term work that we need to do together between the United States and China to manage that competition.
In a number of areas, they had a healthy debate about various issues. You know, there certainly are areas where they have a number of differences. President Biden was quite clear about our concerns in a number of areas, but he also discussed with President Xi areas where we have some interests that align and where we should be able to work together.
I know you’re probably all very interested in some of the specifics that they talked about. I’m just going to, again, highlight a few and then happy to talk through some additionals in the Q&A.
They did have an extended discussion of Taiwan, which is certainly what we expected. And President Biden clearly reaffirmed the U.S. “One China” policy and the precepts on which it’s based. And he was very clear about the U.S. interest in ensuring that there is no unilateral changes to the status quo across the street and maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, and was quite direct about his concerns about some of Beijing’s behaviors that he believes is at odds with both — with peace and stability across the Strait.
Human rights came up at various points throughout the conversation, multiple times. You know, the two leaders have had many discussions about human rights issues over the years, and they’ve talked about it at some length. And I think it’s no secret that they have a real difference of worldviews.
And so, the President was quite clear and quite candid with the range of human rights concerns that he has, as well as broader concerns about the ways in which China is seeking to reshape the rules of the road in ways that he believes are fundamentally, you know, not consistent with the kind of international order that has underpinned the world for quite some time, as it’s in the interests of the United States and our allies and partners.
You know, I think that they — you know, they did talk about economic issues, as you would expect. That included on a range of different points. But I’ll note, specifically, the President did underscore the importance of China fulfilling its Phase One commitments, and his desire to see real progress on the conversations that Ambassador Tai is having with her counterpart, Vice-Premier Liu He.
And as you’ll see in the readout, you know, the two leaders did talk about some areas where the two sides should take some follow-up steps — again, through empowered officials — on some specific and concrete areas of work that the two leaders mapped out.
But, you know, overall, I think — as again, I suggested last night and just to kind of remind folks — we were not expecting this meeting to somehow be a sort of fundamental departure point in where we are at in the relationship between the United States and China.
We were not expecting a breakthrough. There were none to report. This was really about, again, as I mentioned earlier, not only developing those ways to manage the competition responsibly, but ensuring that as we go forward, the United States and China have sort of a steady state of affairs where we take a series of competitive actions, we’re able to keep open lines of communication, we work with our allies and partners, and we confront China where we need to at the same time that we are able to work together where our interests intersect.
So, I’m happy to just pause there, I think, in the interests of time and walk through any specifics that folks are interested in digging into more. So, thanks again.
Q Thank you. Hi, [senior administration official]. Two questions. Did President Biden ask Xi Jinping to open nuclear stability talks? And if so, how did Xi respond? And second, on Taiwan: Did you have any success establishing guardrails? And if so, what are they?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Demetri. And I don’t know if you ended up having that Guinness while you were waiting. If you did, I want you to share some of it.
So, you know, I’m not going to get into granular details on every single point that the two of them talked about, but certainly, the President did discuss areas where he believes the United States and China face risks in the relationship, including strategic risks, and underscored the importance of being able to have some — to be able to address some of those issues and to have some further conversations.
So, I’m not going to characterize those any further, other than to say that a range of those issues was certainly part of the discussion tonight.
On Taiwan, there was sort of nothing new established in the form of guardrails or any other understandings. You know, as I noted, the President was very clear in reaffirming very longstanding U.S. policy and raising very clear concerns. But the idea of establishing specific guardrails with respect to Taiwan was not part of the conversation tonight.
Q Thank you. And thanks, [senior administration official]. So, a couple of questions. On Taiwan: CCTV, I believe, said that President Biden offered — he said during the talk, the call that he does not support Taiwan independence. Can you confirm: Is that accurate?
And secondly, do you feel that the call at all eased tensions between the two governments? And if so, to what degree?
And then if I can just squeak in a last third question: Did the Beijing Olympics come up at all on the call? Was there an invitation issued?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks. Thanks, Ellen. So, I’m just going to work backwards on those.
So, on the Olympics, it did not come up.
Second question — in my 12:30 a.m. — remind me was — I was like not jotting down fast enough.
MODERATOR: I think her line is closed. It was: Do you feel like the call at all eased tensions?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Oh, “eased tensions.” Right. Thank you very much.
Look, I would just say, again, like, I think that the question of “easing tensions” is, to my mind, sort of the wrong way of looking at, sort of, the purpose of this meeting. You know, I think a sort of sense of the U.S.-China relationship as being something that has ups and downs is a little bit of a, sort of, old model of how to think about the relationship between the United States and China.
As I said, I think we sort of think of this as a steady state where we are able to do and are doing, sort of, many different things at the same time.
So, I don’t think the purpose was to particularly ease tensions or necessarily that that is the result. We want to ensure that the competition is responsibly managed, that we have ways to do that. But the President has been quite clear that he’s going to engage in that stiff competition.
And so, again, I sort of don’t necessarily look at this as something that has arcs of ups and downs, per se, but rather making sure that as we are engaging this competition, we have a way of managing that going forward.
And then, you know, on the question of Taiwan independence, I would just note that this is something, you know, that the United States has reiterated at various points over time. I know that White House officials have reiterated it publicly earlier this year, that it is not something that the United States supports.
So, I don’t think that’s anything that’s particularly new or different. It has certainly been a part of U.S. policy.
Q Hi. Thanks again for doing this so late. On Iran — I saw the statement mentioned Iran — did Biden tell Xi that China would have to stop buying oil from Iran or step up its own domestic compliance or maybe face stricter U.S. sanctions enforcement? I kind of want more details on that.
And if I could, based on tonight’s talks, what do you think for the next six months out? Will this help drive relations in a more stable direction in the coming six months? Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, on Iran, you know, I would say, Michael, that it was a useful opportunity for the two sides to compare notes and to coordinate a bit, particularly ahead of the next round of — or the resumption of the JCPOA conversations later this month.
You know, certainly, the U.S. is quite clear on our commitment to continue to enforce our own sanctions. And I’m not going to sort of go into further detail about specifics that were discussed along those lines.
And, again, on the question of, like, the next six months, steadier track, it’s a little bit, I think, similar to the question that Ellen asked — or at least my answer will be. I mean, again, I think that we are looking to be able to, again, establish a kind of framework where, you know — and again, that sort of terms where we have this ability to engage in sort of this multifaceted, complex relationship. And I think, you know, the complexity of the relationship is certainly — that was discussed in the conversation between the two leaders.
And so, we certainly want to see, over the next period of time, an ability to continue to take steps that are both the continued building of those guardrails, continued steps to responsibly manage the competition.
So, again, I’m not going to — I’m not going to sort of characterize it in up or down swings, other than to say that, like, establishing the terms of the relationship, the framework of the competition is, I think, where we’re — where we’re really trying to drive toward.
Q Hi, can you hear me?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yep.
Q Thank you. I just wanted to touch on trade. Before the readout came out, there was a suggestion that it wasn’t going to be a major topic of discussion, but you mentioned that President Biden talked about the Phase One commitments. How much was trade a factor here? And also, what did the Chinese President say when Mr. Biden talked about, “You need to live up to the Phase One commitments”?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks for that. Yeah, you know, I wouldn’t characterize it as like a particularly dominant part of the conversation. You know, they certainly ran through — as you would imagine, they had a pretty broad agenda with a bunch of different issues on it. And so this was obviously an important one; it is an important part of our relationship. And China’s commitments are something that’s important to the to the President to see upheld.
So, again, I wouldn’t say that it in any way sort of dominated the conversation. But certainly it was, it was something that was important for the President to raise.
I’m not going to characterize President Xi’s response, despite the fact that our PRC colleagues don’t always abide by the same. We really do try to refrain from characterizing the other side’s position. So, I’m not going to — I’m not going to sort of characterize what they said other than to express that, as you might guess, they have a different view on many of these issues.
Q Yes, hi. Thank you for taking my question. So just to follow up on Iran, was there any kind of particular discussion on JCPOA? Did the President have any specific ask to President Xi as a stakeholder in the P5+1 to get Tehran back on the negotiation table in good faith?
And if I may add just another — just another follow-up: I mean, I know you discussed that you didn’t want to talk about the granular level of nuclear stability, but was the issue of Chinese hypersonic missiles also discussed? Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Patsy. So, on the issue of Iran, you know, again, I do think that the two sides did exchange views on sort of the upcoming discussions around JCPOA and their expectations and ways to ensure that that is a productive process.
Beyond that, again, I’m not going to — I’m not going to go into further details, and I don’t have anything further for you on the hypersonics question.
Q Hey there. Thanks for staying up late there. Just a few topics that I’m wondering if they were hit on, one being vaccines and, sort of, pandemic relief and any joint agreements in moving forward on that together.
And the other would be visas — students, dependents, journalists. That, obviously, is a personal one here in Beijing.
And then just lastly, is there a way to find out who all was in the room in part of these discussions to see how this is going to move forward with those so-called “empowered” officials? Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Of course. So, on the first, on COVID: Yes, the two leaders did talk about both COVID and broader health security issues in terms of, you know, not only the importance of addressing and, sort of, bringing to an end the current pandemic, and did talk about the role of vaccines in that.
Obviously, the President made quite clear the U.S. approach of donating vaccines and underscored the importance, especially, of other countries with large supplies to do the same.
But also talked about the importance of preventing future pandemics and the important role that transparency plays in addressing global health issues. So, I think that that, you know, definitely was something that was a point of discussion between them.
The two leaders did not discuss visa issues in any sort of form.
And then I believe the list of participants was released to the pool, so I think you should have that somewhere.
MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you very much. Unfortunately, that has to be our last question.
Thanks for joining us. Again, this call is on background, attributed to a “senior administration official.” And the embargo is now lifted. Thanks so much.