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Biden stresses North’s denuclearization in summit with Xi

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 U.S. President Joe Biden waves as he walks with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Filoli estate on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, in Woodside, California, U.S., November 15, 2023. REUTERS

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasized the importance of preventing tensions from escalating and pursuing bilateral cooperation during their summit in California on Wednesday, where the White House said Biden underlined Washington’s commitment to North Korea’s denuclearization.

According to the White House readout of the two leaders’ meeting — their first in a year — Biden underscored “the United States’ enduring commitment to freedom of navigation and overflight, adherence to international law, maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea and East China Sea, and the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” during talks with Xi.

The four-hour summit took place on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in San Francisco amid efforts by Washington to lower tensions with Beijing and prevent misunderstandings from escalating into armed hostilities.

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Although the North’s nuclear weapons programs received relatively little mention in coverage and official releases regarding Biden and Xi’s summit in comparison to other issues in the U.S.-China relationship, Washington has long lobbied Beijing to exercise political and economic influence over Pyongyang to rein in the regime’s development of banned weapons.

China and North Korea have been officially bound by a mutual defense treaty since the 1950-53 Korean War, and high-ranking officials from both sides have described their relations on multiple occasions as close as “lips and teeth.”

Beijing is also Pyongyang’s biggest trade partner. According to a July report by Seoul’s Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency, North Korea’s trade with China came to $1.53 billion last year, or 96.7 percent of the regime’s external trade.

At meetings of the United Nations Security Council in recent years, where the United States has tried to pass new sanctions against the North for conducting ballistic missile tests in violation of previous resolutions, China has blamed joint exercises by South Korea and the United States for contributing to the escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula and refused to condone new punitive measures against its ally.

Tensions between Washington and Beijing mounted after the latter suspended bilateral military communication channels last year, following then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, a self-governing island that China claims is a renegade province.

Concerns have grown in Seoul that Korea could be dragged into a potential U.S.-China conflict over Taiwan.

Tensions rose further in February after the United States shot down what it said was a Chinese spy balloon over its territory.

At their summit, Biden and Xi agreed to resume bilateral military communications and curb illicit fentanyl production.

While the U.S. president characterized the talks as achieving “some important progress,” he also said the United States “will continue to compete vigorously with the PRC,” referring to China by the acronym for its official name, the People’s Republic of China.

Biden said the two sides had returned to “open, clear, direct communications on a direct basis” with the summit, noting “vital miscalculations on either side can cause real trouble with a country like China or any other major country.”

But the talks also shed light on the limits of U.S.-China cooperation, with Biden saying that there had been “no agreements” on human rights and disputes in the South China Sea, where Beijing is entangled in overlapping territorial claims with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

Following Biden’s summit with Xi, it remains to be seen if South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol will also meet the Chinese president for bilateral talks on the sidelines of the APEC forum.

Yoon is due to meet Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Friday, but Seoul’s presidential office has remained mum on the prospect of a meeting with Xi.

BY MICHAEL LEE [lee.junhyuk@joongang.co.kr]