Xi and Biden Show Resolve, Cool Tensions in Bali Meeting

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping met on Monday in Bali for their first in-person meeting since Biden took office. Buoyed by their recent political victories at home, the two leaders sought to stabilize the deteriorating Sino-U.S. relationship and clarify their respective priorities. Some progress was made by renewing high-level talks on important issues such as climate change, but it remains to be seen whether this meeting provided a sustainable foundation for the fraught rivalry between the two countries. At The Wall Street Journal, Andrew Restuccia, Ken Thomas, Chun Han Wong, and Keith Zhai described how the meeting marked a shift in Sino-U.S. ties towards managed competition:

In the end, the meeting largely accomplished what the two sides set out to achieve, restoring dialogue between the two major powers and a measure of stability to a relationship that had deteriorated to its lowest point since the 1970s.

But it also marked a new phase in U.S.-China relations—one that is focused on managing the fierce competition between the two economic powers, preventing conflict and finding common ground when they can. It is a departure from past administrations, which have centered more heavily on striking economic deals, finding new business opportunities or expanding cooperation.

In this phase of the relationship, Chinese and U.S. officials said, Beijing and Washington must work out how to coexist—and avoid, or at least postpone, a conflagration. [Source]

Leading up to the meeting, Biden stated, “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.” U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan hoped the meeting would provide “a better understanding and a way to responsibly manage this relationship […and] areas where the two countries and the two presidents and their teams can work cooperatively on substantive issues.” Zeke Miller from the Associated Press described Biden’s attempts to “manage” their differences:

President Joe Biden objected directly to China’s “coercive and increasingly aggressive actions” toward Taiwan during the first in-person meeting of his presidency with Xi Jinping, as the two superpower leaders aimed on Monday to “manage” their differences in the competition for global influence.

The nearly three-hour meeting was the highlight of Biden’s weeklong, round-the-world trip to the Middle East and Asia, and came at a critical juncture for the two countries amid increasing economic and security tensions. Speaking at a news conference afterward, Biden said that when it comes to China, the U.S. would “compete vigorously, but I’m not looking for conflict.”

He added: “I absolutely believe there need not be a new Cold War” between America and the rising Asian power. [Source]

Xi approached the meeting motivated by a similar sense of responsibility. “As the leaders of two major countries, we need to chart the right course and find the right direction for bilateral ties and elevate the relationship,” he said. Xi also showed a desire to avoid zero-sum competition, stating, “It should not be like you win and I lose, and I survive and you die,” and suggesting that both sides “establish the tone of exchanges of dialogue rather than confrontation.” One positive result of the desire for dialogue, as Edward Wong wrote in The New York Times, was the resumption of high-level diplomatic talks:

Antony J. Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, plans to visit China early next year to follow up on the meeting between President Biden and China’s leader, Xi Jinping, in Bali, Indonesia, a State Department official in Washington said on Monday.

The trip to China by Mr. Blinken, his first as secretary of state, would have the same broad aims as the meeting in Bali: to keep the lines of communication open and to have frank exchanges about important issues at senior levels in order to avoid conflict. American and Chinese officials plan to work out details of the trip over the coming weeks.

[…] U.S. officials said after the meeting in Bali that the two countries would resume diplomatic talks that Beijing had frozen after Ms. Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. That includes talks on climate change and global environmental policy. [Source]

The meeting supposedly produced some progress on dealing with conflict zones. According to the White House statement, Xi and Biden agreed “that a nuclear war should never be fought and can never be won and underscored their opposition to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.” However, the Chinese statement included no such affirmation regarding nuclear weapons in Ukraine, and instead merely expressed Xi’s concern and desire for peace. (There was a similar discrepancy in statements regarding Ukraine after Xi met with French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday.) As for Taiwan, the two leaders made their positions clear without coming to any new agreements. Justin McCurry from The Guardian reported on Xi and Biden’s statements on Taiwan:

“I made it clear that our policy on Taiwan has not changed at all,” Biden, who was nursing a mild cold, told reporters. “It’s the same exact position we have always had. I made it clear that I want to see cross-strait issues peacefully resolved so that it never has to come to that. I’m convinced that he understood exactly what I was saying, and I understood what he was saying.”

He added: “We oppose unilateral changes in the status quo by either side and we are committed to maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

[…] Xi told Biden that the Taiwan question was “at the very core of China’s core interests, the bedrock of the political foundation of China-US relations, and the first red line that must not be crossed in China-US relations”, according to an account published by the Xinhua news agency. [Source]

“In several months, we may look back on the Biden-Xi meeting as the first signs of an inflection point that began to decelerate the spiral towards conflict,” said Jessica Chen Weiss, a China expert at Cornell University. Tessa Wong from the BBC shared other reactions from analysts who were cautiously optimistic about the meeting:

Wen-ti Sung, a political scientist who teaches with the Australian National University’s Taiwan Studies programme, noted that there were “few substantive agreements”.

Both leaders get a win, he said. “Xi shows he’s not intimidated by Biden, like US and China are true equals.”

Meanwhile Biden is given a pass on “the US pushing the envelope on Taiwan, and the two sides agreeing to improve dialogue reassures other countries”.

Political scientist Ian Chong of the National University of Singapore said: “The tone I think was overall positive. There’s some recognition that there’s common interests, and these include not letting the relationship spiral out of control.

“But I would still be somewhat cautious. Given the volatility in China-US relations, they have starts and stops.” [Source]

However, human rights activists expressed concern that further dialogue may come at the expense of real accountability for China’s human rights abuses. Underscoring this fear, several media outlets reported that ABC News reporter Molly Nagle was knocked off balance and forcibly pushed away by a member of the Chinese delegation after she asked Biden a question about human rights, just ahead of his meeting with Xi.

Chinese state media framed the meeting through a relatively positive lens. The Global Times said that the leaders’ “remarks and the summit itself inject a certain degree of positivity into bilateral relations.” Another Global Times editorial was titled “Long-awaited scene between China and the US gives the world relief.” CGTN quoted Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who described the meeting as “candid, in-depth, constructive and strategic.” 


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