Nuclear weapons, Taiwan and other key issues addressed on Biden-Xi call

President Joe Biden and China's leader Xi Jinping held their most significant talks yet Monday night, and discussed everything from Taiwan to trade, and even nuclear weapons. Nick Schifrin reports.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Biden and Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, held their most significant talks yet last night and discussed everything from Taiwan to trade to nuclear weapons.

    Here's Nick Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Judy, the two leaders spoke virtually for three-and-a-half-hours, and both sides described it as an attempt to ensure competition does not veer into conflict.

    The U.S. says President Biden reiterated no change in U.S. policy toward Taiwan. Chinese state media said President Xi described attempts by Taiwan to gain U.S. support for independence as — quote — "playing with fire. Whoever plays with fire will get burnt."

    The two sides agreed to continue coordinating on issues, including climate change, to increase dialogue, and the U.S. says they agreed to discuss China's expanding nuclear weapons capacity.

    So, did the meeting advance U.S. interests?

    For, that we get two views. Susan Thornton had 28 years as an American diplomat focusing on Asia. She's now a visiting lecturer at Yale Law School. And John Mearsheimer writes extensively on strategic issues and is a political science professor at the University of Chicago.

    Welcome, both of you, back to the "NewsHour."

    John Mearsheimer, let me start with you.

    Do you believe the meeting served U.S. interests?

    John Mearsheimer, University of Chicago: No, I don't think so, Nick.

    I think Biden's basic goal here was to dampen down the intense security competition that exists now between China and the United States and actually permeates every dimension of the relationship, ideological, political, economic, military.

    And the great fear here, of course, is that this will eventually lead to a major confrontation. Now, did he succeed in doing that? No. And my argument is, it's impossible to achieve that goal. The fact is that the United States and China are destined to engage in a serious security competition, in effect, another Cold War, for the foreseeable future.

    And the reason for that is very simple. China is bent on dominating Asia. It's bent on controlling the South China Sea, taking back Taiwan, and dominating the East China Sea. The United States has no intention of allowing China to achieve any one of those three goals.

    And there's no way you can work out a solution that makes both sides happy. So, the end result is, we're going to be in each other's face for the foreseeable future, and we're going to live in a very dangerous world in east Asia.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Susan Thornton, is the Cold War inevitable, and did this meeting serve U.S. interests?

    Susan Thornton, Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State: Well, I think John is far too pessimistic.

    Certainly, I do think this meeting served U.S. interests. One of have the main impetuses for the meeting is to get communication with the two biggest economies in the world on track and having a normal dialogue, where we can actually talk about things and try to resolve problems.

    I don't think that there's anything inevitable about U.S.-China tensions leading to a conflict. I think President Biden doesn't think so. I don't think any president thinks so. And I think we can certainly foster these kinds of communications. Biden said they're going to have some follow-on discussions about managing tensions in the security area, follow-on discussions about signaling on Taiwan to make sure we get clearer communication.

    And I think, in the era of kind of nuclear weapons among major powers, we certainly have to believe and I believe very strongly that our governments, our leaders and our peoples have agency to keep the two countries from having a conflict. And that's what this meeting was about.

    I think it was a start. It didn't produce a dramatic list of outcomes, but I think it sets the tone back for kind of a constructive and businesslike dialogue. Certainly, the U.S. and China also need to work together on planetary issues in a world where we are definitely interconnected globally.

    Our trade is increasing, even amid these tensions, and we are definitely entangled with China. And we must find a way to coexist with them. Neither one of us is going anywhere. And so I think it certainly is possible to continue to compete with China, but also to work with them where we need to, and certainly to avoid conflict.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, let's zoom into some of the main issues discussed.

    Susan Thornton just mentioned nuclear. The Pentagon says China is going to quadruple the number of its nuclear weapons by 2030. It's changing its nuclear posture. But, today, the U.S. says they will discuss nuclear weapons in the future.

    So, John Mearsheimer, what's your response to that U.S. announcement?

  • John Mearsheimer:

    Well, the fact is, they can talk about nuclear arms control, they can talk about trying to tamp down the nuclear arms race that's now started, but they're not going to do that.

    It's not going to have any effect. The fact is, the United States and China are going to be engaged in a major arms race at the strategic nuclear level, just as the Soviet Union and the United States were during the Cold War. Both sides are going to be looking for advantage, not only at the nuclear level, but at the conventional level as well.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Susan Thornton, is that arms race inevitable?

  • Susan Thornton:

    Well, I don't agree with the focus of the competition.

    I think the U.S.-China competition is mainly in the economic and technological realm, not — it's not really a military competition, and there's not really — I mean, there will be arms racing going on, and there is an arms race going on, but I think those are things that can be both mitigated, and they're not the central feature of the competition.

    So, I hope they will have stability talks. I think we can have some productive arms control discussions. But, again, I hope that we don't get overly focused on this area, because I don't think that's where the competition is. And if the U.S. puts a lot of resources into that facet of the competition, we may take our eye off the main ball.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And let's quickly address Taiwan.

    The U.S. has reiterated its official policy multiple times, essentially walking back more ambiguous comments by President Biden over the last few days about coming to Taiwan's defense. Beijing, of course, as I mentioned, answered with a threat during last night's call.

    Each for about 45 seconds — that's all we have got, about a minute-and-a-half left — John Mearsheimer first, do you believe the administration is pursuing the right Taiwan policy?

  • John Mearsheimer:

    I think we are pursuing the right Taiwan policy.

    But the point that I would make to you, going back to Susan's comments about the importance of communication, it's not just communication that's important. There has to be some sort of possible deal that the United States and China can work out over Taiwan.

    This is an exceedingly dangerous situation. But I see no deal that can be worked out. China wants Taiwan back. And the United States has said, you can't take Taiwan back. And we now have a vested interest in keeping it as an independent entity. And this is a prescription for really serious trouble that can't be solved by communicating or by talking.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Susan Thornton, prescription for trouble?

  • Susan Thornton:

    Well, I think it is a very tense, dangerous situation, but we have managed to keep Taiwan's status quo the same for the last 40 years, since the diplomatic normalization of China.

    I think it's one of the great successes of U.S.-China relations. And it shows that we don't have to be destined for conflict, the fact that we have managed this very fraught situation. And I think keeping the status quo for as long as possible has served and will continue to serve all sides going into the future.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Susan Thornton, John Mearsheimer, thank you very much to you both.

Listen to this Segment