US President Joe Biden has accused Chinese President Xi Jinping of betting that autocracies will triumph over democracies like the United States, days before high-level diplomatic meetings between the two countries are due to take place in China.
Xi “truly believes that the 21st century will be determined by oligarchs”, Biden said, speaking at a CNN-hosted town hall event on Wednesday. “Democracies cannot function in the 21st century, [his] argument is, because things are moving so rapidly – so, so rapidly that you can’t pull together a nation that is divided to get consensus on acting quickly.”
Referring to Xi and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Biden said “these guys are betting … on autocracies”.
“Democracy has to stand up and demonstrate that you can get something done,” said Biden, who used the event in Cincinnati, Ohio to tout his administration’s plans to boost US infrastructure, stimulate the economy, and rejuvenate bruised relationships with allies.
Describing Xi as a “bright and really tough guy”, Biden stressed that the two “don’t agree on a lot of things”.
The rhetoric came at a delicate time for US-China relations, with the two nations preparing for their first high-level diplomatic meeting since tense talks in Alaska in March left the relationship more fraught than before.
Deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman is set to travel to Tianjin on Sunday for meetings with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and foreign vice-minister Xie Feng, following an extended back-and-forth between the two sides about the discussions’ format.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, State Department spokesman Ned Price said that Sherman will be approaching Tianjin “from a position of strength”, following meetings with Japan, South Korea and Mongolia. “The deputy intends for this engagement to show and to demonstrate to the [People’s Republic of China] what responsible and healthy competition can look like,” he said.
Beijing, meanwhile, has stated that it will use the Tianjin meetings to “demand that the United States stop interfering in China’s internal affairs and harming China’s interests”.
Contrary to hopes in Beijing that Biden taking office would herald a de-escalation in bilateral tensions that swelled during Donald Trump’s presidency, the new administration has unleashed a flurry of sanctions and other policy measures against China.
It has also endorsed a determination made by the Trump administration that China is committing “genocide” in its treatment of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, its far-west frontier region, charges that Beijing denies.
But unlike the prior administration, Biden’s government has launched many of its measures against China in coordination with allies, rather than unilaterally.
In their latest confrontation, US and China have traded barbs on widespread hacking activities. “Use encryption devices to spy on allies & adversaries. Intercept phone calls & emails of American citizens. Secretly seek data from Big Tech companies,” Xinhua said on Twitter on Tuesday.
“Thanks to #Snowden, PRISM reflects U.S. IRRESPONSIBLE, DISRUPTIVE & DESTABILIZING behavior in cyberspace,” it said, citing the phrase used by the US when blaming Beijing for state-backed cyberattacks including a massive hack of the Microsoft Exchange email software.
Asked by CNN’s Don Lemon about notable moments of his first six months in office, Biden raised his June visit to Europe, where he rallied allies in the Group of Seven (G7) and Nato to take a public and critical stance on Beijing.
“I was able to go to the G7 and change their mind about a whole range of things,” Biden said. “They never once had included China in any criticism. They were very reluctant … about whether or not they’re going to do business with China in a way that, you know, pushes America aside.”
As well as criticism from the G7 regarding Beijing’s human rights record and economic policies, Biden’s trip also resulted in the first statement from Nato to recognise China as a “security challenge”.
“All of a sudden, if you notice, we’re getting a great deal [done] not because of me, but because of the administration I’ve put together,” Biden said. “And America is back, traditional America is more back and [other countries are] willing to follow us, I believe.”
Ohio, where the town hall event took place, is a state hit hard by the United States’ opioid epidemic. Biden used the occasion on Wednesday to call out China over the flow of fentanyl from the country into the US.
The US government believes fentanyl – a highly potent synthetic opioid – generally arrives in the United States via direct mail shipments from China or indirectly through Mexico. Cartels there manufacture the drug using component chemicals sourced from China.
Both Beijing and Washington have taken measures to stem the flow of fentanyl which can be difficult to regulate given the number of chemical varieties of the substance.
But Biden suggested on Wednesday that there was more that needed to be done to stem the crisis.
Biden said that as well as increasing the number of Drug Enforcement Administration agents dispatched to the US-Mexico border, his administration would continue to raise the issue with Beijing.
“I’ve had this encounter with China, and we’re going to continue it,” he said.
<link before video embed>
Xi and Putin show united front in message to Biden