US-China Summit May Have Lowered The Temperature, But The Tough Issues Remain : The NPR Politics Podcast President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met for a video summit this week. Both governments lauded the call as productive, but the economic and human rights issues driving tension between the two great powers are likely to persist for years.

This episode: White House corrspondent Tamara Keith, White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, and China correspondent John Ruwitch.

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US-China Summit May Have Lowered The Temperature, But The Tough Issues Remain

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SOPHIA: Hey, NPR POLITICS PODCAST. This is Sophia (ph) calling from Oakland, Calif., where my application to be an associate social worker has just been approved after two months of waiting. This podcast was recorded at...


1:49 p.m. on Tuesday, the 16 of November.

SOPHIA: Things may have changed by the time you hear it, but I'll still be grateful that I can start putting my degree to use and seeing clients for therapy. Enjoy the show.


FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Congratulations. That's awesome.

KEITH: Yeah. And I think her services are needed now more than ever, so thank you for jumping into the fold, Sophia. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

ORDOÑEZ: I'm Franco Ordoñez. I also cover the White House.

KEITH: And NPR's John Ruwitch is here. He covers China for NPR. Hello, John.


KEITH: So I guess people might have figured out why we have you both here. But overnight, there was a virtual U.S.-China summit between President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping. And we're going to break down what happened as much as we know. But first, let's start with the context because things have been - I don't know; how should we describe it? - a bit tense between the United States and China. What have been the main points of contention, Franco, from the U.S. perspective?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, I mean, Biden's concerns - he's got quite a few. I mean, there's concerns about human rights abuses. I mean, a big part of that is abuses against the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, China. And President Biden has also, you know, spoken out against the crackdown in Hong Kong. The United States has a lot of concerns about economic practices that China is doing. That's something that Biden said is not only impacting the United States, but also the global economy. He argues that they need to all be on the same economic playing field. The United States is also very concerned about, you know, perceived threats to Taiwan, as well as militarization of the South China Sea. And, you know, there are so many other concerns - strategic issues, like nuclear weapons, as well as China's increased use of cyber.

KEITH: So, John, heading into this meeting, where was China? How do they see these various issues, or do they have other issues with the U.S?

RUWITCH: China - so going into this meeting, to be totally honest, up above all of this was a searing disappointment on China's part in the Biden administration. They thought all this kind of stuff - this tension over trade, over cyber, over all these things - was going to end or at least be dialed back down to sort of a normal level, dialed from 11 down to three or whatever you want to say....

KEITH: (Laughter) Turn it up to 11.

RUWITCH: ...Exactly - once the Trump administration was out of office. And that obviously didn't happen. So one of their sort of overriding priorities and one thing they've been pushing is really to try to get things back to some semblance of stable and normal on all those issues. You know, all these issues came up - right? - or many of them did. And China's sort of take on all of it is, hey; let's just talk, right? As long as we have dialogue going, there's nothing we can't work through. We can manage our differences without letting them derail the relationship. I guess if you kind of dig down a little bit, though, on some of these issues, their position's pretty firm.

You know, take human rights, for example. There was a Foreign Ministry explanation or sort of readout of what Xi Jinping said and how the meeting went last night. And, you know, Xi Jinping said to Joe Biden, you know, China is ready to have dialogue on the basis of mutual respect when it comes to human rights. But then here's the crux. You know, China opposes using human rights to interfere in other people's, other countries' internal affairs. And what that means is Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan, the South China Sea - these are territorial integrity issues, and they're off the table.

KEITH: (Laughter).

RUWITCH: And that goes for a number of issues, too.

KEITH: So let's step back and talk about how this summit even came about. And it is a little bit odd to have what amounts to a Zoom summit. But I guess these are the times we're in.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, you know, President Biden really long sought to have a meeting. You know, the two leaders go way back from the times when President Biden was then Vice President Biden. It's interesting that Biden often says that he knows, you know, President Xi better than any other U.S. leader. And they've been talking a lot about having this summit. They talked twice over the phone. And they definitely felt, though, that there was a need to have a more significant discussion. Problem was President Xi is not traveling. But, you know, they wanted to get together, and this Zoom summit was, you know, the best option at the time.

RUWITCH: Yeah. Xi Jinping hasn't left the country in almost two years. And the official reasoning is that because - is the pandemic. He's got a big year ahead of him in terms of keeping the pandemic under control, dealing with economic fallout from the pandemic. He's got the Olympics in less than three months in Beijing. There's a lot going on at home that he's focused on. And that might also have contributed to why he hasn't been leaving the country and why, you know, he didn't go to the G20, for instance, or go to this climate summit.

You know, there's also the possibility - I've spoken with folks who think that the Trump administration and then Biden administration following on and continuing with tough policies towards China really changed China's mind about what it can get out of relations with the U.S. and how aggressively it, you know, it needs to step up to take part in these type of meetings.

KEITH: So, John, a couple of minutes ago, you mentioned a readout.


KEITH: And this is a term of diplomacy, I think. It is, hey; there was a big meeting, and now we, the governments, are going to tell you, the press, what we want you to know about our meeting. And both countries had readouts. Franco, the U.S. readout was a little different than the typical sort of emailed statements we get.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. So often these statements that we get are just, like, a couple paragraphs long. After this one - and they did issue that, you know, written statement. It was much longer than general or than usual. But they also had, you know, a background briefing, which I guess they sometimes will do either before or after big meetings like this. And, you know, senior administration officials, you know, broke down, you know, what was in that statement but also broke down kind of, like, a little bit of the color in the meeting. And, you know, they said that it lasted much longer than they expected. It lasted more than three hours, three and a half hours, they said. It was so long that they even took a break in between.

You know, clearly, clearly, clearly this was an effort to reduce tensions between these two adversaries as things have risen. What I found interesting, though, was that White House officials in that readout, or in that briefing afterward, you know, did not characterize it that way as if this was a step forward in that process of kind of lowering those, you know, tough feelings. I mean, they were very careful not to describe this in any type of highs and lows that this moment in the relationship is better than it was. They were very focused more on the process and saying that it was clearly about making sure that there was open dialogue about areas of common interest but also that there was that same dialogue for when there were problems and differences so that they did not spiral out of control.

KEITH: So, John, one of my favorite sports is comparing the readouts - OK, not my favorite sport, but, you know...

RUWITCH: Oh, yeah that's a fun one.

KEITH: ...It can be kind of fun.

RUWITCH: You need a new sport, Tam.

KEITH: Yeah, I'm going back to softball.

RUWITCH: You're going back to softball.

KEITH: No, but I do think that it can be very revealing to see how the different governments describe the same meeting in different ways. So, John, how did the Chinese readout describe what happened, and how was it different than the U.S. readout?

RUWITCH: Yeah. They seem to be - the Chinese did exactly the same thing that the U.S. did. The Foreign Ministry put out a written sort of piece that described what happened and China's positions and how Joe Biden reacted. And then a senior Chinese official spoke to the press. Actually, my impression is that he spoke to a very limited number of Chinese press, and then the Foreign Ministry published the Q&A from this guy. But, you know, their readout is that - was pretty much that China seemed very happy with this meeting.

KEITH: All right. Well, we are going to take a quick break, and we'll talk more when we get back.

And we're back. And one thing I want to mention - this is something that happened before the virtual summit but is recent news - is that there was this surprise statement on climate change that we got from the two countries doing that big U.N. climate change conference, the COP26. Franco, what was this statement?

ORDOÑEZ: It was a commitment to reduce gas emissions by the two countries and to pledge to work together, though I will say that the agreement did not get very much into specifics. That said, it was very important because it came after some real questions about how serious the world leaders were about climate change at that Glasgow summit, I mean, because Xi was not there, and Biden had really actually blasted him over it, saying that China forfeited its ability to influence the world. So this surprise agreement was really seen as a breakthrough, and it also helped other nations, you know, to agree to some more aggressive goals. It also gave Biden and Xi some momentum, you know, to have this meeting last night.

KEITH: And then this meeting happened. They have reestablished contact, if you will. How much does this meeting matter for the future of the relationship? How meaningful was it, really?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, I think there's - any time there's dialogue between two adversaries, it helps. I mean, even when you disagree, it's good to know where the other side is coming from. And I think they can at least make the case that they know that better now. But this is an extremely tense relationship. And Biden has been very clearly upping that pressure, not only from the United States but also getting allies to put more pressure on China. So, I mean, I do wonder, I mean, because those tensions are not going to disappear overnight.

RUWITCH: The Chinese system is a top-down system, right? The leader sets the tone, and that's what's happened here. That's what I'm reading in state media. That's what the comments by the vice foreign minister indicate. Xi Jinping was depicted as having kind of stood up for China's interests not in a belligerent way but in a strong and deliberate way. And he was also afforded respect by the most powerful man in the world, the U.S. president, right? He was treated as an equal. And now he can go to the Chinese people and say, look. We're happy with this outcome, and we helped set the course and bring relations with the U.S.

You know, apparently, during the meeting, Xi Jinping said the most important event in international relations of the past 50 years was the U.S. and China establishing relations. And he said the most important event in international relations in the coming 50 years is how these two countries are going to figure out and find the right way to get along. And he said history is going to judge that.

KEITH: Well, and it seems as though we're in a place where it could go several directions. But it could go in sort of a new Cold War kind of direction, or it could go into sort of a prosperous but difficult competitive relationship.

RUWITCH: Both sides have at least paid lip service to the idea of not falling back into a Cold War. I think both countries have sort of reassessed how they look at the other, you know? China very much these days sees itself as on the rise and points to any number of problems in the U.S. - from the fact that Donald Trump was elected president to the way that Joe Biden and Donald Trump have dealt with the pandemic to going back to the 2008 financial crisis - as indicators, as evidence that the U.S. is on its way down. And, you know, when you have that mentality, it's hard to see yourself giving a lot of ground to a power that you think is on the way out.

ORDOÑEZ: There's no question that this is going to be a competitive relationship for - you know, from now until and for as far as, you know, probably we can see. I mean, President Biden, you know, is basically shaping much of his domestic agenda on this issue in order to compete economically with China. He repeated it this week when signing the infrastructure bill. He repeats it every time he talks about his social services bill. I mean, this relationship with China and competing against China is a huge part of the Biden administration.

As for the Cold War issue, I mean, it is a real concern, you know, of a lot of smart thinkers because of tensions that have been growing. And the challenge in this relationship is not just economic, but there are certainly military concerns. And those concerns have only grown. And you've seen that with, you know, the various reports that the Biden administration is putting out, the increased intensity that the Defense Department is putting on this issue as well as the intelligence community. I mean, this is a big, big issue for the United States and, of course, as well as China.

KEITH: We've got to end the pod there. But, John Ruwitch, thanks so much for coming on the pod and bringing your reporting with you.

RUWITCH: Hey. Thank you. It was a pleasure.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

ORDOÑEZ: And I'm Franco Ordoñez. I also cover the White House.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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