Xi-Biden meeting: Visa curbs on journalists to ease, agreement to work towards arms control talks

WASHINGTON/BEIJING – The virtual meeting between Chinese president Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Joe Biden on Tuesday (Nov 16) yielded some immediate outcomes, despite the lack of a joint statement.

China will roll out a “fast-track” channel for American businessmen to visit the country, and the two sides also agreed to relax visa restrictions on their journalists.

The willingness to facilitate business travel was the only concrete deliverable mentioned in a statement issued by Beijing after the talks, although no details were provided on when or how this fast track would work.

“This has been a huge sticking point for the US business community, and frankly has led many to reconsider whether they can remain in China, given the long quarantine processes and the difficulties getting in and out of the country,” said Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI) vice-president Wendy Cutler, a former acting deputy US trade representative.

“This is not totally altruistic. China needs US foreign direct investment. It needs the exports stemming from US investments,” she added at an ASPI panel.

Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, during a daily briefing on Wednesday (Nov 17), confirmed a China Daily report that both sides had agreed after several rounds of discussions to allow journalists now working in each other’s countries to leave and return, subject to Covid-19 regulations.

Both countries also agreed to resume issuing one-year multiple-entry visas to journalists, including to new applicants, although Mr Zhao emphasised that China would do so on condition of reciprocity.

Foreign correspondents based in the two countries have borne the brunt of sour bilateral relations in the past two years, with their visas shortened or denied.

Describing the latest turn of events as a “hard-won achievement”, Mr Zhao said he hoped the US would “keep its promise and put the relevant policies in place as soon as possible”.

A State Department spokesman in Washington said the US was “gratified” that journalists would be able to return to China to work.

“We welcome this progress but see it simply as initial steps,” the spokesman said in a statement.

The two leaders also agreed to work towards establishing arms control discussions, Mr Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, said after the meeting. He was among the top officials who were with Mr Biden during the talks.

He said the two leaders agreed to “look to begin to carry forward discussion on strategic stability”, in relation to mounting US concerns over China’s nuclear build-up.

“You will see at multiple levels an intensification of the engagement to ensure that there are guardrails around this competition so that it does not veer off into conflict,” Mr Sullivan said during a Brookings Institution webinar.

China watchers said that just having Mr Biden and Mr Xi come together for the summit, and talking about the need for stability in the relationship between the superpowers, was a win.

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When Mr Biden entered office in January, the US-China relationship was effectively dysfunctional with no real working channels of communication, said Brookings Institution senior fellow Ryan Hass at the panel discussion after the Xi-Biden meeting.

“The dominant trajectory of the relationship at the time was confrontation through public condemnation,” he said.

In contrast, both sides on Tuesday seemed to acknowledge that runaway escalation of tensions was in neither of their interests, he added.

But while the meeting brought the two leaders to the table, it was no turning point either as both countries were hemmed in by their domestic politics, Brookings Institution senior fellow Cheng Li pointed out.

He said: “Partly because US-China tensions at present reflect profound changes in the geopolitical landscape… and partly because President Biden lacks the political capital at home to warm up relations.”

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Results from a Washington Post/ABC poll released on Sunday showed the US president’s popularity slipping to a new low, with only 41 per cent of those surveyed approving his performance, down from 50 per cent at the end of June.

Mr Xi is also shoring up his position ahead of next year’s 20th party congress and would not want to be seen as soft on the US, said analysts.

Mr Biden said after the summit that the two sides had set up four groups for dialogue to continue. It is unclear what they will discuss, the US president said he would have more details in two weeks.

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