All eyes on Biden and Xi ahead of superpower showdown at G-20 summit
Last November, President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping emerged from a virtual meeting determined to chart a new path that would prevent the two superpowers from spiraling into an open conflict.
But a year later, as the two presidents prepare to meet in person for the first time since Biden took office, Washington and Beijing remain in a diplomatic and economic standoff. On Monday, Biden and Xi will meet on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit and again try to repair the world’s most important bilateral relationship.
The two leaders are likely to offer a familiar refrain about prioritizing stability as they hash out their differences, analysts say. China and the U.S. have clashed over economic competition, security, human rights and Beijing’s tacit support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The two superpowers are also fundamentally at odds over the subject of Taiwan. Disputes over the status of the island’s democracy have driven much of the recent enmity between China and the U.S.
China views Taiwan as a renegade province that it wants to reclaim, a prospect that has taken on urgency as Xi has moved into a more aggressive stance in military action and rhetoric toward eventual unification.
The U.S. acknowledges China’s position without endorsing it. But Biden has said on four occasions that the U.S. would defend Taiwan militarily if China attacked — a statement that conflicts with Washington’s long-standing policy of remaining silent about what it might do in the case of a Chinese attack. Relations between the U.S. and China worsened in August after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) visited Taiwan, which Beijing viewed as an offense against its claims of sovereignty.
In response, China’s military launched missile tests, warships and planes around Taiwan for several days, imposed sanctions on Pelosi and cut off all communication with the U.S. on issues as diverse as military relations and climate change.
“It’s a very good development; they are at least talking,” said Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. “What’s most likely to happen is they agree to resume some discussions on things.”
Even on Taiwan, there is “at least some common ground” between the two countries, Pei added: “They have a lot of differences, but one thing they don’t want to see is a direct conflict.”
White House officials stressed that there’s no expectation Biden’s meeting with Xi will yield any progress. The two presidents have no plans to issue a joint statement following the meeting, administration officials said, underscoring just how little has changed since Biden and Xi attempted to set the tone of their relationship a year ago.
Tensions over the last year have raised anxiety about the nations’ relationship devolving into a Cold War-era dynamic, but Biden told reporters Sunday the two leaders have always had “frank discussions” that have helped to avoid any “miscalculations” about where they stand.
“I know him well, he knows me,” Biden said at the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. “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.”
Even something as basic as an agreement that the current trajectory of the U.S.-China relationship is untenable would be a sign of success, said Jude Blanchette, chair of China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“Both sides likely see the other’s desire to ‘stabilize’ the relationship as more tactical than substantive, given the deep levels of distrust that now exist,” Blanchette said. “Beijing thinks the U.S. wants to simply normalize the level of hostility it thinks the U.S. is showing towards it, and for its part, the U.S. thinks Beijing’s talk of ‘stability’ is just a stall tactic.”
For Biden, who revels in face-to-face diplomacy, the meeting is a chance to lay out his views in a way that’s only been possible over videoconferences until now, said Andrew Small, a senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund’s Asia Program.
Biden has held five calls or videoconference meetings with Xi since taking office, but he often recalls his time spent with the Chinese leader when both men served as vice president and toured their respective countries together.
The face-to-face meeting is a chance to tap into that personal history “to really talk about strategic priorities, their differences, clarify positions and transact at least on a limited number of issues” such as food security, Small said.
White House officials have said Biden plans to seek China’s help on North Korea over its latest round of ballistic missile launches. The president consulted key allies in the region on the eve of his meeting with Xi. He held separate meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol before all three met to discuss China and coordinating a response to Pyongyang’s provocations. Biden also spoke with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, a key ally in the region and a member of the Quad security alliance.
China “has an interest in playing a constructive role in restraining North Korea’s worst tendencies,” national security advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters Saturday, noting that continued aggression would invite only more American military and security presence in the region.
“Whether they choose to do so or not is, of course, up to them,” he said.
Biden will also try to coax China to join a global push to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, U.S. officials said.
China has refused to condemn Moscow’s assault, but Biden administration officials pointed to Xi’s comments opposing the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine in a joint statement with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz during a recent visit to Beijing.
“The G-20 is a good stage for both Washington and Beijing to be able to say that although the two sides’ rivalry is intensifying, it will be managed responsibly and it will still be possible to deal with each other in a few areas of global concern,” Small said.
During Thursday’s daily news briefing in Beijing, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian said China takes the proposed meeting seriously and is committed to cooperating with the U.S. while also defending its own national interests.
“It is important that the U.S. work together with China to properly manage differences, advance mutually beneficial cooperation, avoid misunderstanding and miscalculation, and bring China-U.S. relations back to the right track of sound and steady development,” Zhao said.
He stressed the importance of Taiwan to China and what China sees as U.S. interference in its “internal affairs.”
At the same meeting, Zhao criticized the U.S. for new limits it has put on the export of American semiconductor technology to China. The new restrictions are likely to hamper Beijing’s pursuit of artificial intelligence and more advanced military technology.
The Chinese government has invested heavily in its ability to produce more advanced semiconductors, an essential component in computers, smartphones, cars and other consumer goods. However, those efforts have been crimped by U.S. export controls on the tools that China needs to develop and manufacture its own chips.
China “is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to advance that objective,” Biden wrote in his national security strategy released last month.
Xi and Biden probably both think they have the upper hand in the tete-a-tete following political successes at home.
“I know I’m coming in stronger,” an upbeat Biden said Sunday after Democrats retained control of the Senate following a key race in Nevada.
Several foreign leaders approached Biden over the weekend to tell him they were watching the midterm elections closely, Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One on a flight to Indonesia. A common theme that emerged from those conversations was the election’s outcome was a testament to the strength of American democracy, he added.
Last week’s history-defying performance by Democrats in the midterm election bolsters Biden’s hand and undercuts the “U.S. and Western democracy is faltering” narrative that Beijing was likely to pitch at the G-20 summit, Small said.
“The Chinese government can’t really contemplate just trying to sit Biden out for the next two years,” he added.
For Xi, the sit-down comes on the back of a sweeping political victory at the 20th National Congress, where he clinched his third term as the leader of China’s Communist Party and cemented his position as the country’s most powerful ruler since Mao Zedong. Having stacked China’s top governing body with his own loyalists could further embolden him to take more aggressive action on Taiwan or in other global affairs.
At the same time, China is facing a slew of domestic challenges, including slowing economic growth and growing discontent with the country’s stringent zero-COVID policy.
“His circumstances changed, to state the obvious, at home,” Biden pointed out.
Urban youth unemployment hit record highs in China this summer, while consumers’ desire to save reached its highest level in two decades. Strict pandemic controls and rising geopolitical risks have also soured multinational businesses on investing in China.
“While both leaders are coming from positions of strength … the domestic environments in both countries do not appear ready for compromise,” said Ja Ian Chong, associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore. “Some improved ability to avoid miscalculation and unintended escalation would already be a significant gain under current circumstances.”
Subramanian reported from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and Yang from Taipei, Taiwan. David Shen of The Times’ Taipei bureau contributed to this report.
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