President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping met on Monday in Bali for some three hours, the first in-person meeting between the two leaders since the US President took office in January 2021. The aim of the meeting that took place, as relations between the world’s two great powers are at their lowest, was practical and low-key.
Locked into intense strategic competition and rising geopolitical tensions, the two are seeking to manage their relationship in a way that it does not fly off the rails and become a mutually destructive train wreck.
As Biden had told Xi in their virtual meeting in November 2021, that there was a need “to establish some common sense guardrails” to ensure that the two countries do not veer off into an inadvertent conflict.
First in-person meeting between Xi Jinping and Joe Biden since the US President took office in January 2021.
Xi acknowledged that the relationship between two global giants was not meeting global expectations.
He said, he looked forward to working with Biden “to bring China-US relations back on track.”
Biden called on China to work together with the US on challenges like climate change, macroeconomic stability, health and food security.
The US President raised issues of PRC practices in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and made it clear that the US policy on Taiwan had not changed
Xi-Biden First Meet Since Obama’s Rule
In Bali on Monday, Biden had greeted Xi warmly and said that he was committed to keeping the lines of communication open at a personal and government level. He essentially summed up the goals of the meeting when he said that the two countries shared responsibility “to show that China and the United States can manage our differences, prevent competition from… turning into conflict, and to find ways to work together on urgent global issues that require our mutual cooperation.”
In turn, Xi acknowledged that the relationship between the two global giants was not meeting global expectations. “So we need to chart the right course for the China-US relationship.”
Both sides issued separate press notes after the meeting. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in China, Xi harked back to history to point out that “Currently, the state of China-US relations is not in the fundamental interests of our two countries and people.” There was a clear message in his remark to his American counterpart: “A statesman should think about and know where to lead his country. He should also think about and know how to get along with other countries of the world.” He said, he looked forward to working with Biden “to bring China-US relations back on track.”
Biden’s message, according to the readout by the White House was par for the course. He spoke of the US' need “to compete vigorously with the People's Republic Of China(PRC) through investing in domestic policies and allies and partners around the world. He called on China to work together with the US on challenges like climate change, macroeconomic stability, health and food security. The American readout said that the two leaders have agreed to empower their senior officials “to maintain communication and deepen constructive efforts on these and other issues.”
The US President raised issues of PRC practices in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and made it clear that the US policy on Taiwan had not changed and that it opposed “any unilateral changes to the status quo by either side (China and Taiwan).” He was, however, critical of China’s coercive and aggressive actions towards Taiwan.
In the past two years Xi and Biden have had a couple of virtual meetings and exchanged phone calls. But the last time they met in person was in the Obama administration in 2011 when as vice-presidents of their respective country, the two met five times over the course of Biden’s six-day visit to China.
US-China’s Competitive Ties Over Taiwan
Biden’s earlier intense interaction with Xi took place in an era when the US formally embraced a policy of a dense engagement with China. The situation today, in the words of the Biden Administration, is one of “intense competition.”
And to add to this, there are military tensions arising out of issues relating to Taiwan brought on by Biden’s allegedly inadvertent statements on US' commitment to defend the island as well as the recent visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taipei.
A recent hallmark of the strategic competition is the US recently placing wide-ranging and stringent set of restrictions on the export of high technology and its know-how, especially, semiconductors to China. This is aimed at hobbling Beijing’s efforts in the fields of quantum computing and artificial intelligence.
In this context, the reiteration of both sides “that a nuclear war should never be fought and can never be won” made it clear that China is as worried about Russian threats in Ukraine as the US.
Crisis Management With Beijing Is a Priority for US
In May 2022, in a major speech on China at the George Washington University, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that China was the “only country” with the intent to reshape the international order and the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to do it. It was also “integral” to the world economy and the ability to solve global challenges like climate change and Covid. “Put simply,” he said, “the United States and China have to deal with each other for the foreseeable future.”
Blinken went on to add that the US goal was to “manage this relationship responsibly” and therefore, it has prioritised “Crisis communications and risk reduction measures with Beijing.” He said that US was willing to “invest, align, and compete” with Beijing, even as it sought to create areas where the two could work together.
The US Secretary of State’s remarks fed directly into the recently released US National Security Strategy that described China as “America’s most consequential geopolitical challenge.”
The Biden Impact on US-China Bilateral
The meeting took place at a time when the individual standing of both Xi and Biden has witnessed a qualitative shift. The Chinese leader has assumed the mantle for an unprecedented third term of office and the recent Chinese Communist Party Congress has seen a consolidation of his authority.
Meanwhile, Biden arrived for a series of meetings in Asia—in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt for the COP27 summit, the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh and the G-20 meet in Bali—with some wind in his sails arising from the better-than-expected performance of the Democrats in the US mid-term elections.
The subjects of the meetings he attended are the areas his predecessor Donald Trump looked down on and ignored. In the past year, Biden has been successful in passing legislation that will invest significant money in domestic reform and in reinforcing the US’ role as the leading science and technology power. However, a question mark remains as to whether he will choose to contest the presidential elections in 2024.
As for now, both the US and China are keen to hit “reset” in their relationship, but that does not mean a return to the past but fashioning a hard-headed engagement based on a mutual interest in avoiding conflict and cooperation in areas like the world economy, climate change, non-proliferation and biosecurity.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)