China's President Xi trolls Biden by calling him 'my old friend' after his repeated denials that they are close

When Chinese President Xi Jinping greeted Joe Biden as a "old friend" at the opening of their virtual summit's first video conference Monday night, it looked like he was making a subtle dig at him.

Biden, who earlier denied that he and Xi were friends, describing their encounters as 'pure business,' said the two men have'spent an awful lot of time talking to each other.'

He did, however, propose that they begin the meeting "more officially," despite the fact that "you and I have never been that formal."

Xi appears to have baited Biden by coming out swinging and welcoming him as a 'old friend,' despite the President's and his press secretary Jenn Psaki's repeated protestations that the two are not 'old friends.'

Over the summer, Biden reacted angrily to a question from Fox News White House correspondent Peter Doocy, who asked whether he would contact Xi 'old friend to old friend,' requesting access for WHO investigators looking into the origins of COVID-19.

'Let's get something straight,' Biden replied in June during a press conference in Switzerland. 'We know each other well. We're not old friends. It's just pure business.' 

Before Monday's virtual conference, Biden's press secretary, Jenn Psaki, reiterated that the two leaders were not close friends, but that their degree of familiarity would allow them to have "candid talks."

'Well...I can confirm...he still does not consider him an 'old friend,' so that remains consistent,' Psaki said ahead of the meeting between the two world leaders. 

President Joe Biden (left) and Chinese President Xi (right) Jinping exchanged pleasantries for the cameras at the top of their virtual summit Monday night. Xi greeted Biden as his 'old friend,' much to the annoyance of the US president who has been trying to shake the moniker for months.
President Joe Biden (left) and Chinese President Xi (right) Jinping exchanged pleasantries for the cameras at the top of their virtual summit Monday night. Xi greeted Biden as his 'old friend,' much to the annoyance of the US president who has been trying to shake the moniker for months.

Following months of tension between the US and China, the Chinese leader used the word 'lao peng you,' which connotes love and demonstrates a degree of familiarity and confidence.

The statement, said by Xi, 68, symbolizes a common history that stretches back to August 2011, when he and Biden spent hours talking and traveling in Sichuan province - when Xi was the Communist Party's First Secretary and Biden was Obama's Vice President.

Xi's usage of the word, according to Wang Huiyao, head of the Center for China and Globalization, is a real demonstration of goodwill.

Biden said that he and Xi have "always talked with one another very honestly and freely" and that they "never walk away wondering what the other man is thinking" during their virtual meeting on Monday night.

Under previous President Barack Obama, Daniel Russel, the senior US ambassador for Asia, said it was part of each leader's quest for the 'narrative high ground' at the start.

'Xi deliberately greeting Biden as 'my old friend' - after Biden went on record this summer expressly denying that they are 'friends.' And Biden, with a toothy smile, reminding Xi that all countries - including China - 'have to play by the same rules of the road',' Russel said.

Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University of China, noted Xi's use of the term despite the difficult state of relations.

'When we Chinese call someone an old friend, we mean we've known him for a long time. But an 'old friend' doesn't necessarily mean he is still a real friend,' Shi said.

Given current diplomatic tensions, Biden may not want to be seen by US allies and his political opponents as too much of a 'friend'.  

The US and China differ on a number of topics, including the origins of the COVID-19 virus, trade and competition restrictions, Beijing's developing nuclear arsenal, and increased pressure on Taiwan.

Biden committed to address problems of concern in the Indo-Pacific region, such as human rights and other challenges.

He informed the Chinese leader that he was looking forward to a "frank and forthright dialogue" that would assure "simple, direct competition" between China and the US.

'We need to establish some common-sense guardrails,' Biden said, adding, 'especially on vital global issues like climate change.' 

The meeting went 'longer than expected' a senior administration official said on a call with reporters after midnight. It lasted for about three and a half hours, broken into two sessions.   

'The conversation was respectful and straight-forward and open,' the official said. 'They didn't just stick to the scripts in front of them.' 

Chinese officials said in advance that Taiwan would be their top issue for the talks.

Tensions have risen as the Chinese military has despatched an increasing number of fighter planes near Taiwan, which Beijing regards to be part of its territory.

Chinese military personnel conducted drills near Taiwan last week in reaction to a legislative delegation from the United States visiting the island.

'The Taiwan issue concerns China's sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as China's core interest,' Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Monday. 'It is the most important and sensitive issue in China-U.S. relations.'

Chinese state media reported after the summit that Xi cautioned Biden that encouraging Taiwanese independence would be 'playing with fire.'

'Some people in the US intend to 'use Taiwan to control China.' This trend is very dangerous and is like playing with fire, and those who play with fire will get burned,' he was quoted as saying by Xinhua news agency.

The White House readout after the summit was considerably more measured, but between the lines, Biden's pushback against Beijing's increasingly aggressive posture toward Taiwan was clear.

'On Taiwan, President Biden underscored that the United States... strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,' the White House statement said.

'He was quite direct about his concerns about some of Beijing's behaviors that he believed is at odds with both peace and stability across the strait,' a senior official said. 

Biden repeated the United States' long-standing 'One China' policy, which recognizes Beijing but allows for informal interactions and defense ties with Taipei.

The statement reaffirmed the United States' long-standing stance of not recognizing Taiwan's independence but maintaining informal and defense relations with Taipei.

During the meeting, there was 'extensive discussion about Taiwan,' according to a US official who did not want to be identified.

Tensions over Taiwan, in particular, are on the verge of reaching perilous new heights.

In recent years, China has increased its military presence near Taiwan, with a record number of jets breaching into the island's air defense zone in October.

The US maintains it supports Taiwan's self-defense, but it's unclear if it will act directly to assist.

Xi mentioned each country's need to 'manage our own affairs' in front of reporters, but he didn't discuss US criticism of Beijing's saber-rattling over Taiwan, vast human rights violations, or other hot issues.

The Olympics in Beijing next year were not mentioned.

Some have called for the United States to boycott the Winter Olympic Games in protest of China's human rights violations.

According to the senior official, Biden discussed human rights with Xi.

'The two leaders have had many discussions about human rights issues over the years and they've talked about it at some length,' the official said. 'It's no secret that they have a real difference in world views.'  

Biden was 'quite clear and quite candid' when talking to Xi about human rights, and spent time speaking about Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, as well as human rights more broadly, a White House readout said.  

'We were not expecting a breakthrough, there were none to report,' the official said more generally about the call. 

The two presidents also discussed Iran, Afghanistan, and North Korea, according to the White House.

They also discussed the US-China trade agreement, with Biden pressing China to meet its phase one promises.

The senior administration source wouldn't specify whether Biden and Xi discussed China's hypersonic missiles, but implied that the president had pushed China to be more honest as the world searches for answers concerning COVID-19's origins.

According to the official, the president 'also discussed the necessity of preventing future pandemics and the critical role that openness plays in tackling global health challenges.'

'We have a duty to the globe as well as to our people,' Biden said Xi at the start of the meeting.

'That's why we believe – and you and I have talked about this – all countries have to play by the same rules of the road, why the United States is always going to stand up for our interests and values, and those of our allies and partners,' Biden said. ''If past is prologue, I am sure that today we'll be discussing those areas where we have concerns – on human rights, on economics, to ensuring a free and open Indo Pacific.'

Biden also shared that he and Xi have 'always communicated with one another very honestly and candidly.' 

'We never walk away wondering what the other man is thinking,' Biden said. 

Before turning the program over to Xi, Biden thanked the Chinese leader for calling and congratulating him after he won the election last year, saying it was 'very gracious.' 

Through a translator, Xi told Biden, 'Good to see you, Mr. President and your colleagues.' 

'It's the first time for us to meet virtually, although it's not as good as a face to face meeting, I'm very happy to see my old friend,' Xi said.   

'Humanity lives in a global village, and we face multiple challenges together,' Xi said. 'China and the U.S. need to increase communication and cooperation,' the Chinese president also offered. 

The two men were meeting Monday night Washington time, while it's already Tuesday morning in Beijing. 

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