U.S. President Joe Biden appeared to edge toward a long-sought reset in relations with China on Monday, meeting with President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit.
Statements and comments from both sides hailed an “open and candid” conversation between the two men, their first in-person meeting since Mr. Biden was elected in late 2020. White House officials had repeatedly played down expectations in the run-up to the meeting, but there were tangible results nonetheless: an agreement to restart climate talks and to establish new guidelines to manage the relationship in the future, including joint working groups on various issues of contention.
“I’m not suggesting that this is kumbaya,” Mr. Biden told reporters late Monday evening, adding that the two sides continue to have disagreements, “but I do not believe there is need for concern of … a new Cold War.”
“We’re going to compete vigorously, but I’m not looking for conflict.”
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A Chinese readout of the meeting said Mr. Xi told Mr. Biden that the “current situation facing China-U.S. relations does not conform to the fundamental interests of the two countries and the two peoples, nor does it meet the expectations of the international community.”
He added that the two sides need to put relations “back on the track of healthy and stable development.”
In televised remarks before their closed-door session, both men acknowledged that the eyes of the world were on them, with Mr. Biden saying, “As the leaders of our two nations, we share responsibility, in my view, to show that China and the United States can manage our differences, prevent competition from becoming anything even near conflict and to find ways to work together on urgent global issues that require our mutual co-operation.”
Chief among these is tackling the climate catastrophe. Mr. Biden’s environmental envoy, John Kerry, had made some progress with China on this issue, but Beijing broke off talks after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August.
Late last week, Mr. Biden joined other world leaders in Egypt for COP27, the United Nations climate change conference, and the Chinese readout from Monday said the two sides “agreed to work together to promote the success” of that summit.
Ahead of their meeting, Mr. Biden said he would use the time with Mr. Xi to “figure out where the red lines are” in the U.S.-China relationship. Chief among these is the self-governed island of Taiwan, which China claims as its territory and has vowed to seize by force if necessary.
Tensions over Taiwan spiked dangerously after Ms. Pelosi’s visit, with a furious Beijing launching massive military drills and flying sorties around Taiwanese airspace. But even on this issue there seemed to be a sign of de-escalation – if not progress – from Monday’s summit.
Mr. Biden, who in the past has provoked China’s ire by appearing to promise U.S. military support to Taiwan in the event of an invasion, said he emphasized to Mr. Xi that Washington’s policy “has not changed.”
“We oppose unilateral changes to the status quo by either side and we’re committed to maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” he said.
He also refuted speculation that a Chinese military action might occur in the near future, saying he did not think “there’s any imminent attempt on the part of China to invade Taiwan.”
Per the Chinese readout, Mr. Xi emphasized that Taiwan was the “first insurmountable red line of China-U.S. relations” but added that he hoped and strived “to maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
Ahead of the Monday summit, Taiwanese officials also welcomed greater dialogue between the U.S. and China. Speaking to Voice of America, the U.S. state-run broadcaster, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said open lines of communication between Washington and Beijing would be “very helpful to regional peace.”
“There’s been no official contact between Taiwan and China for quite some time,” he added. “If the United States is able to talk to the Chinese side about some of the concerns on the Taiwanese side, that will be very helpful to Taiwan as well.”
The Chinese readout did not mention several other contentious issues the White House said Mr. Biden raised with Mr. Xi, including human-rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang region and crackdowns on democracy activists in Hong Kong, as well as “human rights more broadly.” It did, however, acknowledge a discussion about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which Mr. Xi said he was “highly concerned” about.
While Beijing has not condemned Moscow’s actions, Mr. Xi appeared to continue to hedge his previously tacit support for Russian President Vladimir Putin, reiterating a call for an end to the war and condemning Russian threats to use nuclear weapons.
A senior U.S. official, speaking on background to reporters ahead of the Biden-Xi meeting, said that during a summit in Cambodia over the weekend Chinese Premier Li Keqiang spoke extensively about China’s stand on the war and suggested that Beijing has been surprised by and is uncomfortable with Russian rhetoric – particularly the nuclear threats – and its conduct in the war.
Mr. Putin is not attending the G20 in person, an absence that Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, said “speaks for itself.” In bilateral meetings Sunday with the leaders of South Korea and Japan, Mr. Biden praised both countries for their assistance of Ukraine.
Mr. Xi met with Mr. Putin in Uzbekistan in September on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit, the Chinese leader’s first major overseas trip since the beginning of the pandemic. During that summit, Mr. Putin acknowledged that China had “questions and concerns” about the war but also praised Mr. Xi’s “balanced position” on Ukraine.
Arriving in Indonesia, both Mr. Xi and Mr. Biden were riding recent domestic successes: the U.S. President enjoying a stronger-than-expected showing for his Democratic Party in midterm elections, and Mr. Xi having secured an unprecedented third term as leader at the Chinese Communist Party Congress last month.
Mr. Biden said there was no sign that Mr. Xi is either more conciliatory or confrontational as a result of his consolidation of yet more power.
“I found him as he’s always been – direct and straightforward,” he said.
“We were very blunt with one another about places where we disagreed or where we were uncertain of each other’s position.”
-With a file from Reuters