The White House on Tuesday insisted that President Biden is not an “old friend” of Chinese President Xi Jinping — despite Xi saying so at a virtual summit Monday in what’s being seen as an opening dig to undermine Biden.
Biden has denied in the past that he’s a friend of the Communist leader, despite often warmly recounting their interactions during his vice presidency.
A Bloomberg News reporter asked White House spokesman Andrew Bates during an Air Force One gaggle whether “President Xi was trying to in some way undermine the US” with his use of the term.
“I’m not going to speak for President Xi,” Bates said. “But like you just mentioned, you’ve heard explicitly from the president himself that he has a longstanding relationship with President Xi, they spent a great deal of time together, they are able to have candid discussions and be direct with each other, which helps them be productive. But he does not consider President Xi an old friend.”
Xi opened the virtual summit Monday by telling Biden during brief public remarks, “I’m very happy to see my old friend.”
Biden became testy in June when Fox News correspondent Peter Doocy suggested the two speak “old friend to old friend” to get to the bottom of the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Let’s get something straight,” Biden said at the time. “We know each other well. We’re not old friends. It’s just pure business.”
Hours before Biden and Xi spoke Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said when reminded of the June exchange that Biden “still does not consider [Xi] an ‘old friend,’ so that remains consistent.”
Biden and Xi’s virtual summit lasted about 3 1/2 hours and covered more than a dozen major topics, the White House said. But the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 762,000 Americans apparently did not make the list.
A White House release said the men discussed trade, human rights, Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang, “a free and open Indo-Pacific,” “health security,” “the climate crisis” and “global energy supplies.”
The readout didn’t mention the coronavirus, nor did a subsequent late-night White House background call for reporters.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Tuesday morning at a Brookings Institution event that Biden and Xi additionally discussed territorial disputes in the South China Sea and “counter-narcotics” issues. China is a top manufacturer of illicit fentanyl responsible for increased US drug overdose deaths.
Asked about “next steps” in the US-China relationship, Sullivan noted questions about the origins of COVID-19. US spy agencies in August assessed that it’s “plausible” that the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, but China has refused to cooperate with an independent international investigation.
“When it comes to COVID-19, there are still very real questions about transparency and issues associated with the origins of COVID-19. But we also have to beat this pandemic in the months ahead and that is going to require the US, China and the rest of the international community all working together in a way in which we are trying to vaccinate the world [but] not through extortion,” Sullivan said.
But Sullivan didn’t say if Biden raised the issue during the virtual summit. Psaki recently declined to say if Biden mentioned it during a 90-minute phone call with Xi in September.
Biden convened the summit despite reports that his son Hunter Biden still owns a 10 percent stake in a Chinese investment firm that’s controlled by state-owned entities. The company, BHR Partners, was formed 12 days after Hunter Biden joined his father aboard Air Force Two for a 2013 trip to Beijing.