Biden and Xi meet at G20 to set ‘red lines’ for U.S.-China relationship

Biden and Xi meet at G20 to set ‘red lines’ for U.S.-China relationship

U.S. President Joe Biden shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping as they meet on the sidelines of the G20 leaders’ summit in Bali, Indonesia, November 14, 2022.KEVIN LAMARQUE/Reuters

U.S. President Joe Biden appeared to edge towards a long sought after reset in relations with China on Monday, as he met 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, the first in-person meeting since Mr. Biden was elected in late 2020. While White House officials had repeatedly downplayed expectations in the run-up, there were tangible results nonetheless: an agreement to restart climate talks and to establish new guidelines to manage the relationship going forward, 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 the two sides continued 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,” he said.

A Chinese readout of the meeting said Mr. Xi told Mr. Biden 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 the two sides needed 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.”

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Chief among these is tackling the climate catastrophe. Mr. Biden’s chief environmental envoy, John Kerry, had achieved some progress with China on this issue before Beijing broke off talks following U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August.

Late last week, Mr. Biden joined other world leaders in Egypt for COP 27, 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 his Chinese counterpart to “figure out where the red lines are” in their two countries’ relationship. Chief among these remains the self-governed island of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its territory and has vowed to seize by force if necessary.

Tensions over Taiwan spiked dangerously following 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 has in the past provoked Chinese 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.

Mr. Biden 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 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, Taiwan’s 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 account did not mention several other contentious issues the White House said Mr. Biden raised with Mr. Xi, including crackdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and on “human rights more broadly.” It did, however, acknowledge a discussion about Ukraine, which Mr. Xi said he was “highly concerned” about.

While Beijing has not condemned Moscow’s actions, Mr. Xi appeared to continue a gradual hedging of his previous tacit support for Russian leader Vladimir Putin, reiterating calls for peace and condemning threats of nuclear weapons use.

A senior U.S. official, speaking to reporters ahead of the Biden-Xi meeting, said that during a summit in Cambodia over the weekend, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang “spoke rather extensively about China’s policy towards Ukraine.”

Mr. Li, who is due to retire in March, “put clear emphasis on sovereignty, on the irresponsibility of nuclear threats, the need to ensure that nuclear weapons are not used in the way that some have suggested,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The U.S. official said there was “undeniably some discomfort in Beijing about what we’ve seen in terms of reckless rhetoric and activity on the part of Russia,” despite a formal partnership with Moscow. “China is probably both surprised and even a little bit embarrassed by the conduct of Russian military operations.”

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 with the leaders of South Korea and Japan on Sunday, Mr. Biden praised both countries for their assistance of Ukraine, and the U.S. leader pushed Mr. Xi to do the same.

Mr. Xi met with Mr. Putin in Uzbekistan in September, the Chinese leader’s first major overseas trip since the COVID pandemic began. During that summit, Mr. Putin acknowledged China had “questions and concerns” about the war, but also praised Mr. Xi’s “balanced position” on Ukraine.

“China’s relations with Russia are rock solid,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Friday. “China will continue to work with Russia to move forward bilateral relations on a right and steady track.”

Arriving in Indonesia, both Mr. Xi and Mr. Biden were riding recent domestic successes: the U.S. leader 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 a meeting of the Chinese Communist Party last month.

Mr. Biden said there was no sign of Mr. Xi being either more conciliatory or confrontational as a result of his consolidating 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

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