US President Joe Biden vowed to make no “fundamental concessions” in his first in-person summit with China’s Xi Jinping, reinforcing already low expectations for a major reset in relations between the world’s two largest economies.
The two presidents are expected to meet next week on the sidelines on the Group of 20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, a highly anticipated encounter – their first since Biden took office.
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Biden said he expects to discuss contentious issues such as trade and Taiwan, which China has put under increased military pressure since US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei in August.
“I’m not willing to make any fundamental concessions,” Biden told a White House news conference Wednesday. “I’m looking for competition not conflict.”
The US and China face a diplomatic dilemma as they attempt to balance the need to cooperate on trade and pressing issues like climate change, COVID-19 and Russia’s war in Ukraine with increasing suspicion of each other’s intentions. The National Security Strategy released by Biden last month cast China as trying to supplant the US as the world’s dominant power, while a defiant Xi declared that the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is now on an irreversible historical course.”
With relations between the two nations at their lowest point in decades, both presidents have put some domestic uncertainty behind them in recent weeks. Xi has secured a precedent-breaking third term as leader and stacked the Communist Party’s leadership with proven loyalists. Biden emerged stronger than expected from US midterm elections, telling reporters Wednesday that he plans to run for re-election in 2024, though he has yet to make a formal announcement.
Previous calls between the two presidents – who met several times when Biden was vice president – have helped serve to steady relations during periods of discord. In recent days, Xi said he was willing to work with the US while senior diplomats between the two sides have held calls and in-person meetings.
“The two sides don’t want to normalize the bilateral relationship so much as stabilize it,” said Richard McGregor, senior fellow for East Asia at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
“Whether that allows for any significant cooperation on issues like climate change and pandemics and the like is yet to be seen.”
The meeting could help reopen communication channels after Beijing cut off military talks and climate change cooperation in retaliation over Pelosi’s becoming the first US speaker to visit Taiwan in 25 years. They might seek to ease some of the pressures over issues including Beijing’s military threats against Taiwan and Washington’s curbs on Chinese chipmakers, although a temporary truce akin to the one Xi and President Donald Trump brokered at the G-20 summit in 2019 might prove elusive.
The US-China relationship rapidly deteriorated after that, with Trump dubbing COVID-19 the “China virus,” the US accusing Beijing of carrying out genocide against Muslims in Xinjiang and the both sides trading sanctions. China responded to Pelosi’s trip with its most provocative military exercises near the island in decades, including firing ballistic missiles over Taipei.
“For three years, we have only had hawkish attacks on each other,” Henry Wang Huiyao, founder of the Center for China and Globalization, a policy research group in Beijing, said. “We need a bottom for this deterioration. I think at least that this meeting can probably find that and gradually stabilize, if not improve, the relationship.”
The Bali meeting is one of a series of summits, including Association of Southeast Asian Nations meetings in Phnom Penh and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Bangkok, that both sides will use to press their competing visions for the world. Biden is expected to meet with regional leaders such as Japanese premier Fumio Kishida and Indonesian President Joko Widodo during his trip to Asia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expected absence from the summits might help lower the temperature on differences between Washington and Beijing over the war in Ukraine. While Xi has refused to criticize Putin’s invasion, he has recently expressed concerns about the conflict and reaffirmed his opposition to the use of nuclear weapons.
Xi has ramped up diplomatic efforts after self-imposed isolation during the pandemic. He met with Putin at a regional security summit in Uzbekistan in September and hosted German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Beijing last week.
Yun Sun, a senior fellow and director of the China Program at the Washington-based Stimson Center, said a good outcome for China would be for Biden “to show respect.”
“China will take it as a victory if Biden shows a few things that he wants China to cooperate on, because it implies that US is willing to reciprocate on issues China sees as important,” she said.
Taiwan is likely to loom large after Biden’s previous assurances to defend the island in the event of a Chinese attack, despite the US longstanding One China policy of maintaining “strategic ambiguity about its commitment to the island’s defense.” Biden said Wednesday he was “going to have that conversation” with Xi, adding that US policy toward Taiwan “has not changed at all.”
China considers the democratically ruled Taiwan as part of its territory, even though it has never controlled the island, and has repeatedly reaffirmed its willingness to use force to prevent its formal independence. During Xi’s previous calls with Biden, including their most recent one in July, he has warned the US against “playing with fire on Taiwan.”
“What I want to do with him when we talk is lay out what each of our red lines are – understand what he believes to be in the critical national interests of China, what I know to be the critical interests of the United States and determine whether or not they conflict with one another,” Biden said. “And if they do, how to resolve, and how to work it out.”
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