Taiwan in focus at Biden-Xi summit, as tariffs and supply chain issues take a back seat

Key Points
  • Two issues that dominate the U.S.-China economic relationship, tariffs and supply chain woes, will take a backseat Monday to more pressing security concerns when President Joe Biden holds a virtual summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
  • Instead, rising tensions between mainland China and Taiwan are likely to be a priority for the United States. 
Xi Jinping, vice president of China, left, meets with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., Feb. 14, 2012.
Chip Somodevilla | Bloomberg | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Two issues that dominate the U.S.-China economic relationship, tariffs and supply chain woes, will take a backseat Monday to more pressing security concerns when President Joe Biden holds a virtual summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

"I do not expect tariffs to be something that will be on the agenda for tomorrow night," a senior Biden administration official told reporters Sunday during a background briefing on the highly anticipated video call. 

Asked whether Biden and Xi would discuss the current global supply chain crisis, the official said it was also "not something I expect to be a significant point of discussion."

The person noted, however, that there will be "a number of economic issues and other " that Biden and Xi "will touch on through the course of the conversation."

What investors need to know about forthcoming Biden-Xi virtual meeting
What investors need to know about forthcoming Biden-Xi virtual meeting

Still, convincing the United States to lift the tariffs imposed by former President Donald Trump on approximately $370 billion worth of Chinese-made goods is a major policy priority for Beijing. 

It is also a goal embraced by the U.S. business community, which has pressed the Biden administration for nearly a year to lift the tariffs. 

Given how high profile the U.S.-China trade and tariff wars have been, news that they would not be high on Monday's agenda was unexpected. 

Business leaders are also likely to be surprised that Biden and Xi don't plan to dedicate a significant amount of time to the unprecedented global supply chain disruption, which has its roots in the Covid-19 pandemic but continues to worsen

So far, the White House has refused to offer many concrete details about Monday's agenda.

The senior aide said that the meeting would likely last "several hours," and that Biden and Xi would speak through interpreters, but refused to say who would be attending with the president, or how the "summit" would be structured. 

One thing is clear, however: rising tensions between mainland China and Taiwan will be a priority for the United States. 

China has been scaling up military exercises near Taiwan in recent months, a show of force that has not gone unnoticed by the Biden administration.

"Our policy [toward Taiwan] has been consistent and remains consistent and I expect the president to reaffirm that," the official said.

"I'm not going to further predict what the president is going to say tomorrow night, but I certainly expect it to be a topic of conversation tomorrow night," the person added.

White House aides have said a goal of the summit is to ensure that what it calls "intense competition" with China does not lead to conflict.

"We want to make clear our intentions and our priorities to avoid misunderstandings," the official said. "The president will also make clear that we want to build common sense guardrails to avoid miscalculation or misunderstanding. That's how you sustain responsible competition."

Biden also intends to discuss China's human rights record at the meeting.

Beijing has drawn international condemnation for its "extensive program of repression" against members of its Uyghur Muslim minority ethnic group. This includes forced labor, the mass incarceration of over a million people in "reeducation" camps, and the alleged sterilization of Uyghur women, as reported by the news media and the U.S. State Department. Beijing denies that it violates Uyghurs' human rights.

In March, the United States and its allies imposed sanctions on several officials in Xinjiang province, the traditional homeland of the Uyghur people. Secretary of State Tony Blinken has labeled the treatment of Uyghurs in China a "genocide." Biden has stopped short of using this word, however.

Despite these tensions, Washington and Beijing have recently sought to highlight their cooperation on issues where the two countries' interests converge.

This was seen at the COP24 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland. There, Chinese and American envoys announced a surprise joint agreement to set new targets for scaling back fossil fuel consumption.

Together, the United States and China are responsible for more than 35% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, although China produces more than double what America does.

Climate change is one of the few issues where both Washington and Beijing could benefit from cooperation. The White House official said Biden will spend part of the meeting Monday discussing potential areas of cooperation between Washington and Beijing. But these issues are the exception; more often, the two countries are on opposite sides.

Under Xi, China's one-party communist government has strived to dethrone the United States as the world's No. 1 economic and political power. It has exerted its economic influence around the globe, financing infrastructure projects in the developing world and forging purely transactional alliances with countries.

Back home, the Communist Party has violently suppressed dissidents in Hong Kong, and gradually restricted freedoms enjoyed for a century by citizens of the former British protectorate.

For the White House, these developments are seen as part of a longer-term plan that in some ways presents more of a threat to the United States than any one of the strategic issues alone.

In both words and deeds, China is trying to provide the world with an attractive alternative to liberal, rules-based democracy. The message from Beijing is that democracy has failed to deliver for its people.

Biden has responded to this looming threat by working to unify U.S. allies in the Pacific, at the G-7 conference and in NATO.

"We're in a contest — not with China per se — but a contest with autocrats, autocratic governments around the world, as to whether or not democracies can compete with them in the rapidly changing 21st century," Biden said at a NATO summit earlier this year.