President Biden and China’s leader, Xi Jinping, pledged at a virtual summit to improve cooperation, but offered no major breakthroughs after more than three hours of talks.
Mr. Biden emphasized the need to keep “communication lines open,” according to a White House readout of the meeting, as the two countries confront disagreements over issues like the future of Taiwan, the militarization of the South China Sea and cybersecurity.
The leaders also discussed areas in which Chinese and American interests appear to be aligned, including efforts to combat global warming.
Mr. Biden, seated in the Roosevelt Room at the White House before two large screens, opened the discussion shortly before 8 p.m. in Washington, noting that the two have “spent an awful lot of time talking to each other” over the years, dating to when Mr. Biden was vice president and Mr. Xi was a rising power.
“We need to establish some common-sense guardrails,” Mr. Biden said, using a phrase his administration has often cited as a goal for a challenging relationship. He added: “We have a responsibility to the world as well as to our people.”
Mr. Xi, speaking next from a chamber in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, also struck a conciliatory tone, especially compared to a series of acerbic statements by Chinese officials over the course of the year. He called Mr. Biden “my old friend” and said the two countries should work together.
China’s state television network reported that Mr. Xi “expressed his readiness to work with President Biden to build consensus and take active steps to move China-U.S. relations forward in a positive direction.” He also called for mutual respect, an implicit criticism of the Biden administration’s handling of relations.
The talks ended at around half-past noon in Beijing, after about three and a half hours, according to the Chinese state television network, C.C.T.V.
Since becoming president, Mr. Biden has spoken twice with Mr. Xi, but they have not met in person this year. Administration officials said the virtual meeting was meant to reassure both sides that misunderstandings and miscommunications would not lead to unintended clashes.
Mr. Biden has repeatedly suggested that it should be possible to avoid active military engagement with China, even as the United States engages in vigorous competition with Beijing and continues to confront the Chinese leadership on several significant issues.
But the call, which was initiated at Mr. Biden’s request, reflects his administration’s deep concern that the chances of keeping conflict at bay may be diminishing.
From China’s perspective, the virtual meeting itself amounts to a vindication of its strategy to wait out the new administration.
After the tumult of the Trump years, China’s leaders hoped to reset the relationship with the United States when President Biden took office in January. When that didn’t happen, officials seemed surprised, then angry.
Senior officials lashed out as Mr. Biden’s national security team challenged China on a variety of issues — from Taiwan to the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, where the State Department has declared a genocide of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities is underway. In a speech in Beijing in July celebrating 100 years of the Chinese Communist Party, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, warned: “The Chinese people will never allow foreign forces to bully, oppress or enslave us. Whoever nurses delusions of doing that will crack their heads and spill blood on the Great Wall of steel built from the flesh and blood of 1.4 billion Chinese people.”
What Beijing did not do was compromise on any of its policy and behaviors that have stoked exactly those divisions, including menacing military patrols and exercises around Taiwan. Instead, it squeezed concessions out of the United States.
Those included the release in September of Meng Wanzhou, an executive of the telecommunications giant Huawei who had been detained in Canada in 2018 on an American arrest warrant. Beijing, infuriated by the detention at the time, retaliated by essentially taking two Canadians hostage.
China continues to warn the United States of its red lines, especially over the fate of Taiwan, but the tone of various public statements has mellowed considerably. That is also in China’s interest heading into the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February and the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party in November.
“I think that both countries want to bring down the temperature,” said Ali Wyne, an analyst focused on U.S.-China relations with the Eurasia Group, a consultancy based in Washington. “They both recognize that threshold between intensifying competition and unconstrained rivalry is tenuous.”
China’s leader, Xi Jinping, urged the United States not to test his country’s resolve on the question of Taiwan, an island democracy Beijing claims is part of its territory.
“We are patient and are willing to strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification with the utmost sincerity,” Mr. Xi told President Biden, according to a readout on the meeting released by Chinese state media. “But China will have to take resolute measures if the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces provoke, compel or even cross the red line.”
In vivid language that has come to define Beijing’s strident rhetoric, Mr. Xi criticized politicians in the United States who he said sought to use the island’s status as leverage over Beijing — a trend he described as dangerous. “It is playing with fire, and if you play with fire, you will get burned,” the Chinese readout cited Mr. Xi as saying.
No issue between the United States and China is more contentious than the fate of Taiwan, which functions as an independent nation in all but official recognition by most of the world.
The People’s Republic of China has claimed Taiwan since the defeated Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek retreated there in 1949, but in recent months Beijing has grown increasingly vocal in criticizing U.S. efforts to strengthen the island’s democracy and its military defenses.
Beijing’s assertive language is often coupled with displays of its growing military prowess. It has menaced Taiwan with military exercises simulating an amphibious assault and air patrols that have swept through the island’s air defense identification zone. Many military…