President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping opened their first in-person meeting Monday since the US president took office nearly two years ago, aiming to “manage” differences between the superpowers as they compete for global influence amid increasing economic and security tensions.
Xi and Biden greeted each other with a handshake at a luxury resort hotel in Indonesia, where they are attending the Group of 20 summit of large economies, before they sat down for what was expected to be a conversation lasting several hours.
“As the leaders of our two nations, we share responsibility, in my view, to show that China and the United States can manage our differences, prevent competition from becoming anything ever near conflict, and to find ways to work together on urgent global issues that require our mutual cooperation,” Biden said to open the meeting.
Xi called on Biden to “chart the right course” and “elevate the relationship” between China and the US. He said he was ready for a “candid and in-depth exchange of views” with Biden.
Both men entered the highly anticipated meeting with bolstered political standing at home. Democrats triumphantly held onto control of the US Senate, with a chance to boost their ranks by one in a runoff election in Georgia next month, while Xi was awarded a third five-year term in October by the Communist Party’s national congress, a break with tradition.
“We have very little misunderstanding,” Biden told reporters in Cambodia on Sunday, where he participated in a gathering of southeast Asian nations before leaving for Indonesia. “We just got to figure out where the red lines are and … what are the most important things to each of us going into the next two years.” Biden added: “His circumstance has changed, to state the obvious, at home.”
The president said of his own situation: “I know I’m coming in stronger.”
White House aides have repeatedly sought to play down any notion of conflict between the two nations and have emphasised that they believe the countries can work in tandem on shared challenges such as climate change and health security. But relations have grown more strained under successive American administrations, as economic, trade, human rights and security differences have come to the fore.
As president, Biden has repeatedly taken China to task for human rights abuses against the Uyghur people and other ethnic minorities, crackdowns on democracy activists in Hong Kong, coercive trade practices, military provocations against self-ruled Taiwan and differences over Russia’s prosecution of its war against Ukraine.
Chinese officials have largely refrained from public criticism of Russia’s war, although Beijing has avoided direct support, such as supplying arms.
Taiwan has emerged as one of the most contentious issues between Washington and Beijing. Multiple times in his presidency, Biden has said the US would defend the island — which China has eyed for eventual unification — in case of a Beijing-led invasion. But administration officials have stressed each time that the US’s “One China” policy has not changed. That policy recognises the government in Beijing while allowing for informal relations and defense ties with Taipei, and its posture of “strategic ambiguity” over whether it would respond militarily if the island were attacked.
Tensions flared even higher when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, visited Taiwan in August, prompting China to retaliate with military drills and the firing of ballistic missiles into nearby waters. The Biden administration also blocked exports of advanced computer chips to China last month — a national security move that bolsters US competition against Beijing. Chinese officials quickly condemned the restrictions.
And though the two men have held five phone or video calls during Biden’s presidency, White House officials say those encounters are no substitute for Biden being able to meet Xi in person. That task is all the more important after Xi strengthened his grip on power through the party congress, as lower-level Chinese officials have been unable or unwilling to speak for their leader.
Before the meeting, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning had said China was committed to peaceful coexistence but would firmly defend its sovereignty, security and development interests.“It is important that the US work together with China to properly manage differences, advance mutually beneficial cooperation, avoid misunderstanding and miscalculation, and bring China-US relations back to the right track of sound and steady development,” she said at a daily briefing in Beijing.
Xi has stayed close to home throughout the global Covid-19 pandemic, where he has enforced a “zero-Covid” policy with mass lockdowns that have roiled global supply chains.
He made his first trip outside China since start of the pandemic in September with a stop in Kazakhstan and then onto Uzbekistan to participate in the eight-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organization with Putin and other leaders of the Central Asian security group.
White House officials and their Chinese counterparts have spent weeks negotiating details of the meeting, which was held at Xi’s hotel with translators providing simultaneous interpretation through headsets.
US officials were eager to see how Xi approaches the Biden sit-down after consolidating his position as the unquestioned leader of the state, saying they would wait to assess whether that made him more or less likely to seek out areas of cooperation with the US.
Biden and Xi each brought small delegations into the discussion. US officials expected Xi would bring newly elevated government officials and expressed hope that it could lead to more substantive engagements down the line. Before meeting with Xi, Biden held talks with Indonesian President Joko Widodo, the G-20 host, to announce a range of new development initiatives for the archipelago nation, including investments in climate, security, and education.
Many of Biden’s conversations and engagements during a three-country tour — which took him to Egypt and Cambodia before he landed on the island of Bali on Sunday — were, by design, preparing him to meet Xi.
The two men have a history that dates to their service as their country’s vice president. The US president has emphasised that he knows Xi well and wants to use the meeting to better understand where they stand.
Biden has tucked references to his conversations with Xi into his remarks as he traveled around the US before the Nov 8 elections, using the Chinese leader’s preference for autocratic governance to make his own case to voters for why democracy should prevail. The president’s view was somewhat validated on the global stage, as White House aides said several world leaders approached Biden during his time in Cambodia — where he was meeting with Asian allies to reassure them of the US commitment to the region in the face of China’s assertive actions — to tell him they watched the outcome of the midterm elections closely and that the results were a triumph for democracy.