Biden floated meeting with Xi that Chinese leader declined

U.S. President Joe Biden suggested the possibility of an in-person meeting with Xi Jinping during a phone call last week, but the Chinese president declined as he continues to avoid leaving his country even for major gatherings amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Biden suggested the two leaders meet at some point in the next few months, according to people familiar with the conversation who were granted anonymity to discuss it.

Xi hasn’t left China for more than 600 days, the longest stint of any Group of 20 leader. Instead, he’s made virtual appearances at events including a summit of leaders from the BRICS nations. He isn’t expected to appear at next week’s United Nations General Assembly in New York either, though Chinese presidents seldom attend those gatherings.

Biden and Xi spoke for about 90 minutes on Sept. 10, their first discussion since February. On the call, Biden urged Xi to cooperate on key issues even as they continue to disagree on other topics, according to a statement from the White House. But the offer of a summit wasn’t disclosed by the White House.

The U.S. has sought to separate issues like climate change from more contentious ones like trade, human rights and democracy in places like Hong Kong, while Beijing has insisted that they must not be separated.

The offer of a meeting was reported earlier by the Financial Times.

The Financial Times cited multiple people briefed on last Thursday’s 90-minute call as saying Xi did not take Biden up on the offer and instead insisted that Washington adopt a less strident tone toward Beijing.

The White House denied the account.

“This is not an accurate portrayal of the call. Period,” Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said in a statement.

In his statement, Sullivan added: “As we’ve said, the Presidents discussed the importance of being able to have private discussions between the two leaders, and we’re going to respect that.”

But a source who was among those briefed on the call confirmed the report was accurate.

“Xi apparently intimated that the tone and atmosphere of the relationship needed to be improved first,” the source said.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond when asked to comment.

The Financial Times quoted one of its sources as saying Biden had floated the summit as one of several possibilities for follow-on engagement with Xi, and he had not expected an immediate response.

It cited one U.S. official as saying that while Xi did not engage with the idea of a summit, the White House believed that was partly due to concerns about COVID-19.

The G20 summit in Italy in October has been talked about as a possible venue for a face-to-face meeting.

The call between Biden and Xi was their first in seven months and they discussed the need to ensure that competition between the world’s two largest economies does not veer into conflict.

A U.S. official briefing before the conversation called it a test of whether direct top-level engagement could end what had become a stalemate in ties, which are at the worst level in decades.

The White House said afterward it was intended to keep channels of communication open, but it has announced no plans for follow-on engagements.

Chinese state media said Xi had told Biden that U.S. policy on China imposed “serious difficulties” on relations, but added that both sides agreed to maintain frequent contact and ask working-level teams to step up communications.

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