WASHINGTON — U.S. President Joe Biden said there “need not be a new Cold War” between the U.S. and China, following a three hour summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Indonesia on Monday.
Biden also said “I don’t think there’s any imminent attempt by China to invade Taiwan,” despite escalating rhetoric and aggressive military moves by the P.R.C. in the Taiwan Straits.
Biden and his counterpart held the much anticipated meeting on the sidelines of the G20 meeting of global economically developed nations in Bali.
Biden said he and Xi spoke frankly, and they agreed to send diplomats and cabinet members from their administrations to meet with one another in person to resolve pressing issues.
Although they have spoken five times by video conference, the meeting was the first one Biden and Xi have held face-to-face since the U.S. president was elected in 2020. The personal dynamic between the two men was friendly, with Biden putting an arm around Xi at the outset and saying, “It’s just great to see you.”
It remains to be seen, however, whether the summit will produce a genuine shift in relations between Washington and Beijing, its biggest strategic competitor and long-term military adversary.
Beijing’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the conversation was “in-depth, candid and constructive” in a statement afterwards.
The two leaders reached “important common understandings,” said the MFA, and they were prepared now “to take concrete actions to put China-U.S. relations back on the track of steady development.”
A tense rivalry
Tensions between the two nations have been slowly escalating for decades, but they skyrocketed after former President Donald Trump launched a protectionist trade war with China.
Since taking office in 2021, Biden has done little to reverse Trump’s trade policies. Instead, he has added a new layer to U.S.-China hostilities by framing American foreign policy as a zero sum contest between the American commitment to human rights and free markets, and the creeping spread of authoritarianism around the world, embodied by China’s Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
During their meeting, Biden also brought up “concerns about PRC practices in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, and human rights more broadly,” according to an American readout of the summit.
Xi rejected Biden’s complaints, and he told the U.S. president that “freedom, democracy and human rights” were “the unwavering pursuit” of China’s Communist Party, according to a statement from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Biden also raised Beijing’s non-competitive economic practices, which include widespread state intervention in private markets, and laws requiring foreign companies to partner with Chinese firms in order to operate in the country.
The Biden administration has responded to these policies with an increasingly aggressive series of regulations that limit, and in some instances totally bar, the participation of Chinese firms in parts of the U.S. economy, especially that are critical to national defense.
Both leaders reiterated each country’s so-called “red lines” on the issue of Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan, although Biden also sought to calm global fears of an imminent Chinese military incursion onto the island.
Beijing is still furious over U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei earlier this year, which China responded to at the time by flying jets over the Taiwan Straits in what it claimed were last-minute military exercises. China also later sanctioned Pelosi personally.
In Bali on Monday, Biden said there had been no change to U.S. policy towards Taiwan. “I made it clear that we want to see cross strait issues peacefully resolved, and so it never has to come to that. I’m convinced [Xi] understood everything I was saying.”
Biden said the two leaders also discussed Russia’s faltering invasion of Ukraine, a sensitive subject given that China has become Russia’s economic lifeline in the wake of sanctions that cut off Moscow’s trade relations with most of the world’s major democracies, including the United States and EU member states.
“We reaffirmed our shared belief that the threat or the use of nuclear weapons is totally unacceptable,” Biden said at a brief press conference after the meeting.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly suggested that Russia’s use of a nuclear weapon in Ukraine would be within its rights, the first time in 70 years that a nuclear power has seriously threatened deploying an atomic weapon to augment conventional warfare.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and its recent flurry of ballistic missile tests also came up during the talks.
China continues to exert more influence over the rogue state than any other nation, but Biden said it wasn’t clear how far that influence extends into North Korea’s military testing regimen.
“It’s difficult to say that I am certain that China can control North Korea,” Biden said. “I’ve made it clear to President Xi Jinping that I thought [China] had an obligation to attempt to make it clear to North Korea that they should not engage in tests,” said Biden.
Notably, Biden also said that if China fails to convince North Korea to halt the barrage of tests, then the United States will have no choice but “take certain actions that would be more defensive” in order to safeguard allies South Korea and Japan.
Biden told the reporters in Bali that he sought to reassure Xi that these actions “would not be directed against China, but it would be to send a clear message to North Korea.”
Still, the subtext was clear: If China cannot rein in North Korea’s aggression, Beijing can expect to see the United States shift more military assets to the Western Pacific, and maintain an even greater presence in China’s maritime backyard.
The unexpectedly strong performance of Biden’s fellow Democrats in last week’s U.S. midterm elections had strengthened his hand going into the summit, Biden said.
“I think the election held in the United States … has sent a very strong message around the world that the United States is ready to play. The United States is — the Republicans who survived along with the Democrats — are of the view that we’re gonna stay fully engaged in the world and that we, in fact, know what we’re about,” said Biden.
Following Monday’s summit, Biden will spend the next two days in Bali meeting with G20 world leaders, where Russia’s war on Ukraine is expected to dominate the conversation.