For the first time as president, Joe Biden met in person with President Xi Jinping on Monday at the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia. The stakes couldn’t be higher, and both leaders want the world to know they get it.
“As leaders of our two nations, we share a responsibility, in my view, to show that China and the United States can manage our differences, prevent competition from becoming a close conflict, and find ways to work together on pressing global issues. issues that require our mutual cooperation,” Biden said Monday.
Xi echoed that, saying the two countries should better meet the expectations of the world: “We must find the right direction for bilateral relations in the future and elevate relations,” he said.
Biden arrived after recently ramping up the economic war on China, with tensions high over Taiwan, and much of Congress standing behind this more belligerent posture. Washington’s bipartisan neighborhoods have largely internalized a hawkish view of China that sees the country as a rising power against which the United States must win, regardless of exactly how winning means. A series of escalating measures has led some on the Chinese side to feel that the US lockdown policy is back on track. The Biden administration has, in many ways, doubled down on former President Donald Trump’s approach to countering China. What was missing was an affirmative view of what a “victory” over China would look like.
Meanwhile, Xi has left China – until recently the pandemic kept him confined to its borders. He has just further consolidated his power in a third term after the Chinese Communist Party Congress last month.
The two have talked on Zoom for the past two years and met extensively during the Obama years. But for their first in-person meeting, the White House had set remarkably low expectations. “I don’t think you should view this meeting as a meeting where specific deliverables will be announced,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters last week.
Instead, their talk was spent trying to define the boundaries of the increasingly strained relationship. During a three-hour meeting, the two leaders discussed Taiwan, the war in Ukraine and several other topics, according to each country’s readings. Biden told reporters on Monday that he and Xi had agreed that Cabinet secretaries and other senior officials would meet to continue discussing unresolved issues.
The meeting encapsulates the heightened set of tensions that now define the US-China relationship – and
how important it is to maintain the current balance of power, however precarious. Detente, not to mention a new conception of stable and productive relationships, seems a long way off.
“To put an end to it, this is an inflection point because the relationship is at a point where it could go downhill very, very quickly,” said Evan Medeiros, a Georgetown professor who served on the Council of national security of President Barack Obama. Last week. “There’s a 1950s quality to the US-China competition.”
Can the Biden-Xi meeting help ease tensions?
For Biden, whose foreign policy outlook is heavily influenced by personalities and personal relationships with world leaders, Xi’s meeting was an opportunity. Few heads of state have spent so many hours getting to know the Chinese leader. (Biden said Monday he found Xi “as he always was.”)
But tensions between the United States and China are decidedly higher than when Xi and Biden first met as vice presidents of each of their countries.
The dangers have particularly peaked around US policy towards Taiwan. In addition to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August visit to the Democratic island nation China claims as its own, Biden has said four times that the United States will defend Taiwan if China invades, contradicting with the American policy of strategic ambiguity. Earlier this week, a senior Defense Department official stressed that US policy toward China has not changed and there have been no new developments in the way the United States views Taiwan. as part of their longstanding “One China” policy.
Medeiros said the “sloppy way” the Biden administration has handled Taiwan politics would make the visit more difficult. “These are State Department statements and actions and DOD statements,” he told me. “The Chinese are less concerned about the Americans coming to the defense of Taiwan and more about the United States trying to move away from the one-China policy and, therefore, pushing Taiwan more to go in that direction.”
At Monday’s meeting, Biden told Xi that the United States had not changed this “One China” policy, but also warned that China’s “coercive and increasingly aggressive actions against Taiwan… jeopardize peace and stability,” according to the US reading. Xi countered, according to China’s reading, that while Beijing has “always strived to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”, Taiwan independence “is as incompatible” with this goal as “the fire and water”.
One concern is that the United States, by focusing on curbing China’s influence, could end up trying to overtake China, according to Cornell political scientist Jessica Chen Weiss. She warned against the United States mirroring China’s actions and, in doing so, falling into the traps of zero-sum competition, such as overly protective economic measures, anti-Asian hate speech and intense rhetoric. militarist. These tactics end up being detrimental to American interests.
“Even though both governments have sought to prevent a direct military escalation, recent statements and actions by both sides have contributed to the action-reaction cycle that has put the two countries on a collision course, particularly over Taiwan,” said Weiss, who recently spent a year at the State Department, told me in an email last week. “In this context, their first face-to-face meeting represents an important opportunity to stabilize the escalating spiral in US-China relations, although such efforts will take time to bear visible fruit.”
The underlying dynamic, beyond US policies focused on eliminating China’s technological prowess that further enhances competition, is a world where US power is changing. The war in Ukraine revealed the remarkable depth of American alliances in Europe and Asia, while underscoring the limits of the United States as a unilateral superpower and its strained influence in the emerging non-aligned countries of the Global South. As Biden heads to the G20 meeting as well as the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, it should be noted that the era of the United States as an indispensable nation, in the currency of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, belongs to history. Right now, the United States depends more than ever on alliances and cooperation.
Keeping the channels of communication and negotiation open between two world powers is good in itself. But experts warn there is little that today’s summit can do.
“There are a growing number of issues that the United States and China simply cannot agree on,” Tyler Jost, a professor who studies China’s foreign policy at the University, told me last week. ‘Brown University. “As such, you can try to put in place a series of relief valves or safety nets that try to manage the tension, but the fundamental tension is pretty much locked in and the structural reasons behind it don’t haven’t changed.”
Coming from the UN’s COP27 climate summit in Egypt, where Biden warned of “climate hell” if the US and its partners don’t pull together, there is an urgent need to move the dialogue with China forward. on global issues that transcend so-called strategic competition.
As CIA Director Bill Burns said this summer, “The People’s Republic of China is the greatest geopolitical challenge facing our country as far as I can see in the 21st century, [and] the greatest existential threat in many ways is climate change.
Update, November 14, 11:15 a.m.: This story, originally published on Nov. 13, has been updated to include information about Xi and Biden’s meeting and their public comments about it afterward.