President Xi Jinping’s first meeting with US congressional leaders in eight years was infused with tension, as the Chinese leader was confronted over his nation’s failure to condemn Hamas’ incursion into Israel.
(Bloomberg) — President Xi Jinping’s first meeting with US congressional leaders in eight years was infused with tension, as the Chinese leader was confronted over his nation’s failure to condemn Hamas’ incursion into Israel.
“I urge you and the Chinese people to stand with the Israeli people and condemn the cowardly and vicious attacks upon them,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told Xi Monday, hours after he blasted Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi for showing “no sympathy or support for Israel during these tough, troubled times.”
Xi did not address the weekend’s surprise escalation of violence in the Middle East in his opening statement, instead expressing hope for mutual respect and peaceful co-existence between the US and China. “We have a thousand reasons to make US-China relations better, and no reason to make them worse,” Xi said.
The meeting in Beijing marked the first time Xi has met with US senators since 2015, when he spoke with congressional leaders on a visit to Washington. It also comes as the US and China appear to be setting up a meeting between Xi and President Joe Biden at next month’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco.
Xi and Biden last met at the Group of 20 gathering in Indonesia in November last year. China-US ties tumbled to a new low less than three months later when the US shot down a Chinese balloon due to espionage worries.
While Xi sat down with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in June, the Chinese leader skipped meeting three other cabinet-level Biden officials in recent months, making the exchange on Monday all the more unusual.
Taking a hard line on China has become one of the few bipartisan areas of consensus in Washington in recent years, with Congress often being a driving force for tougher policies on Beijing. The delegation to China was led by Schumer, a Democrat, and Republican Senator Mike Crapo.
Xi’s decision to meet directly with senators, without Biden administration officials present, could be an attempt to shift sentiment among such leaders, who can also influence business ties. Schumer later said the delegation spoke with Xi for about 80 minutes, describing the Chinese leader as “engaged.”
“This might be savvy because there’s been no significant traction thus far with Biden,” said Josef Gregory Mahoney, a politics and international relations professor at Shanghai’s East China Normal University. “Congressional leaders are more vulnerable to special interests, including American firms with extensive commercial interests in China who don’t want to see further deteriorations in ties.”
A successful meeting may make talks between Xi and Biden more likely, Mahoney added.
Israel Looms Large
The Israel-Hamas conflict has featured heavily during the senators’ trip to China, which had been expected to focus on relations between the world’s two biggest economies.
The American senators were in China when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared his country is “at war” after Gaza Strip militants fired over 3,000 missiles and infiltrated southern Israel early Saturday. The combined death toll from the Hamas attack and Israel’s subsequent air strikes in Gaza has climbed to more than 1,100.
During the earlier meeting with Wang on Monday in which Schumer criticized the Chinese foreign minister’s Israel-Hamas response, Wang told the senators he hoped their visit would get US-China relations back on track.
China’s Foreign Ministry called for an immediate ceasefire and reiterated support for an independent Palestinian state on Sunday. That statement did not mention Hamas by name, and characterized the weekend’s events as an “escalation of tensions and violence between Palestine and Israel.” In a regular press briefing on Monday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said her country was saddened by the casualties and opposes violence against civilians.
Speaking at a press conference on Monday evening, Schumer said the US lawmakers urged Beijing to use its influence with Iran “to not allow the conflagration to spread,” adding that Chinese officials agreed to deliver the message to Tehran.
China has been building up its influence in the Middle East recently, most notably by facilitating a deal earlier this year for Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore diplomatic relations.
Schumer told Xi the main purpose of the visit was to ensure “economic reciprocity.” Before arriving in Beijing, the US lawmakers met with American business leaders in Shanghai and discussed issues involving fair competition.
“We feel that China must also provide a level playing field for American companies and workers,” Schumer said he told Xi. “Most Americans, our bipartisan delegation included, do not believe we have that fairness now.”
Last month, the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai reported that optimism among US firms was at historic lows, citing “concerns about geopolitics, US-China relations and China’s poor economy” as weighing on expectations.
Tensions between Washington and Beijing have also centered around how the two economies interact with each other, including US efforts to derisk supply chains from China as well as competition over advanced technology.
“We certainly do not want conflict, and that’s why we want to manage our relationship responsibly,” Schumer told Commerce Minister Wang Wentao at an event on Monday. “We do not want to decouple.”
Wang Wentao told Schumer that Chinese businesses have raised concerns about US export controls, investment restrictions and other sanctions. “We hope Chinese businesses can have access to fair treatment in the US,” he said.
The other issues on the agenda concern Chinese companies’ role in the fentanyl crisis in the US and human rights. Schumer also told Xi he wanted to make sure China doesn’t support Russia’s “immoral war against Ukraine.”
Biden has sent a stream of cabinet-level officials to Beijing since June to stabilize ties between the world’s largest economies. The White House encouraged the senators to go, a person familiar with the planning said before their departure.
Schumer and Crapo had also planned to raise issues on behalf of Micron Technology Inc., which is headquartered in Crapo’s home state of Idaho and building a massive chip production facility in Schumer’s New York.
Schumer said the delegation complained about Chinese business practices such as forced technology transfers and requirements to form joint ventures with Chinese firms.
“China must also end the policies that intimidate US business operating in China,” he said. “We need reciprocity. That means that the American companies are able to compete as freely in China as Chinese companies are able to compete in America.”
–With assistance from Colum Murphy, Xiao Zibang and Philip Glamann.
(Updates with more comments from Schumer at evening press conference.)
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