Biden and Xi sit down for first high-stakes in-person meeting as presidents

Bali, Indonesia

President Joe Biden on Monday greeted his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in person for the first time since taking office, kicking off high-stakes talks whose effects could reverberate around the world.

Biden and Xi walked toward each other from opposite sides of a hotel lobby and shook hands in front of a row of American and Chinese flags just after 5:30 p.m. local time. They smiled for the cameras and Xi – through a translator – seemed to say, “Good to see you.”

“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 conflict, and find ways to work together on issues. pressing global issues that require our mutual cooperation,” Biden said at the start of the talks.

“The world, I believe, expects China and the United States to play a key role in solving global challenges,” he said.

Talks between the two leaders on Monday could last only a few hours, but could have consequences for months or even years, as the world’s largest economies turn to increasingly hostile relations.

The times spent together on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit here will be just a fraction of the time the pair have spent together since 2011. Biden claimed that as vice president he spent north of 70 hours with Xi and traveled 17,000 miles with him across China and the United States – both exaggerations, but still reflective of a relationship that is now perhaps the most important on the planet.

Biden hopes that coming face-to-face after nearly two years of communicating only by phone and videoconference can yield a more strategically valuable outcome, even if he enters the talks with little hope they can produce anything. something concrete.

At the start of their bilateral meeting in Bali, Biden said he found substance in the “face-to-face talks” between the two leaders.

“As you know, I am committed to keeping the lines of communication open – between you and me personally, but our government at all levels, because our two countries have so much that we have the opportunity to manage,” Biden said.

Monday’s meeting begins at a remarkably low point in US-China relations.

Relations deteriorated rapidly amid economic disputes and an increasingly militarized standoff over Taiwan. The tensions have led to a decline in cooperation in areas where the two countries once shared common interests, such as tackling climate change and reining in North Korea’s nuclear program.

In a national security strategy document released last month, Biden first identified China as posing “America’s most significant geopolitical challenge,” and wrote that the country was the “only competitor with a both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to advance that goal.

U.S. officials hardly expected that any of these issues could be solved simply by bringing Biden and Xi together in the same room. The prospect of a joint statement to be released later was seen as a no-start.

Simply arranging the meeting itself has forced US and Chinese officials to establish lines of communication after Beijing angrily cut off most channels following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan during the summer.

“Every issue associated with this meeting, from phone calls to logistics, was very carefully considered, negotiated and engaged between the two parties,” a senior US administration official said.

Planning for Monday’s meeting preceded Pelosi’s trip, and talks continued between US and Chinese officials despite Beijing’s fury. The process was “serious, very supportive and professional in the best traditions of US-China diplomacy”, the official said.

A second official admitted that the talks leading up to the meeting were not always friendly.

“I won’t say the conversations weren’t contentious because obviously there are many areas where we have differences and challenges,” the official said. “The dozens of hours we spent talking to our Chinese counterparts certainly brought up many of these issues.”

For his part, Biden takes meetings like this “incredibly seriously” and reads a lot beforehand. In meetings with advisors, he goes through various scenarios of how the meeting might go.

“He goes through ‘if this happens, then should we handle it that way,’” the first official said. “He understands that this is, in many ways, the most important bilateral relationship. And it’s his responsibility to manage it well and he takes that very, very seriously.

Officials said at Monday’s meeting that they expected Biden’s top advisers to accompany him as part of his official delegation. And they said they expected Xi to similarly surround himself with his top aides, although the US team entered the meeting expecting to see new faces on the Chinese side at the amid an ongoing transition within Xi’s inner circle.

Biden’s aides did not set a time limit for the meeting, although Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, said he expected the talks to last “a few hours” but could extend longer.

“It’s a meeting on the sidelines of an international summit. So it’s not in itself some sort of summit where they meet in a third country or in Washington and Beijing,” he said. “So we didn’t set a time limit for the conversation.”

Sullivan said Biden would be “totally straightforward and straightforward” in the meeting, and expected Xi to be equally blunt in return.

Most interesting for Biden and his aides is establishing some level of understanding with Xi about how the administration views relations with China and learning from him how he views relations with the United States in the future. ‘coming.

The White House has used the phrase “building a floor” to describe the focus of the talks, suggesting both that Biden hopes to prevent relations from deteriorating further and that he sees the potential for improvement.

“We just have to figure out where the red lines are and what are the most important things for each of us over the next two years,” Biden told reporters Sunday in Cambodia, where he was attending summit meetings with senior officials. Asian leaders before traveling to Bali.

Speaking to a small group of reporters in Bali ahead of Biden’s meeting on Monday, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen suggested the face-off was aimed at stabilizing a shaky relationship, and detailed the hope that it would lay the foundations for an “intensive” bilateral economic engagement.

“What I really hope is that as a result of the president’s bilateral role with President Xi today, we will engage in more intensive conversations in the future with our Chinese counterparts on the Chinese economy, global macroeconomic results and how policies in both the United States and China are impacting those results.

For Xi, the trip to Bali also marks his first trip abroad since the start of the Covid pandemic, which prompted the Chinese government to impose strict lockdowns and draconian restrictions. Xi’s re-emergence on the physical world stage also comes on the heels of the Chinese Communist Party Congress in Beijing, during which he secured a groundbreaking third term as leader.

Just a week ago, most in the White House expected Biden to enter the talks relatively weakened by Democratic losses in the midterm election. But better-than-expected results for Democrats gave the president the impression he was entering his meetings this week with the wind at his back, according to top aides.

“I know I’m coming in stronger, but I don’t need it,” Biden said of his own improved political fortunes on Saturday.

U.S. officials previewing the meeting stressed that the Biden administration was not looking to come out with any specific “deliverables,” including a joint statement listing areas of potential cooperation. Rather, the framework aims to provide both Biden and Xi with a meaningful opportunity to better share their respective countries’ goals and perspectives.

“Xi is no enigma to President Biden,” a senior administration official told CNN. “He knows him. And he is aware of where Xi is trying to take China. He sees China as a competitor and he is convinced that the United States can win this competition. »

China’s pandemic-era isolation, US officials say, has made it relatively harder in recent years to read Beijing’s intentions abroad, with Xi refusing to travel outside of China – but they think everything is about to change.

“We can expect them to be more assertive on the world stage,” the senior administration said. But, they added: “What it looks like is hard to know at this time.”

Sullivan said this week that the eventual replacement of pandemic-era video calls with a face-to-face meeting for the first time since Biden took office “takes the conversation to a different level in a strategic way and allows leaders to explore in more detail what each of them sees based on their intentions and priorities.

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