Joe Biden and Xi Jinping began their first face-to-face talks as heads of state on Monday, raising hopes the two presidents could at least begin to stabilise US-China relations.
The meeting is being held in Bali, Indonesia, on the eve of the G20 summit hosted by Indonesian president Joko Widodo.
It was the first time the two men have met in person since Biden became president, although they have spoken by phone or video link on five occasions over the past two years. Xi has only recently begun to travel overseas again after shunning foreign trips since the Covid-19 pandemic began in January 2020.
“I’m committed to keeping the lines of communication open between you and me personally,” Biden said in televised opening remarks. “We share a responsibility to show that China and the US can manage our differences, prevent competition from becoming conflict and find ways to work together on urgent global issues.”
Xi said the two presidents needed “to chart the right course for the relationship”. “Nothing can substitute for face-to-face meetings,” he added.
Speaking before the meeting, a senior US official told reporters the Biden administration hoped the meeting would help the two sides “develop guardrails [and] clear rules of the road”.
“Competition [should] not veer into conflict,” the official added. “President Biden doesn’t want that, and we know our allies and partners in the region don’t want that.”
The meeting comes less than three months after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan enraged China, which responded by launching extensive military exercises around the self-ruled island that it claims as part of its sovereign territory.
Beijing also suspended a range of routine communications with Washington on issues such as climate change and judicial co-operation.
The Taiwan crisis highlighted the increasing chances that an accidental military incident could trigger a larger conflict between the world’s two largest economies and geopolitical powers.
The two sides have also sparred over the war in Ukraine, which is expected to dominate this week’s G20 summit. While Beijing claims to have a neutral position on the conflict, it has backed Russia’s claim that US-led expansion of Nato triggered the invasion.
“After the Ukraine war began, the US started thinking that they need to rapidly increase efforts to prevent China from taking Taiwan,” said Wu Xinbo, an America specialist at Fudan University in Shanghai.
“The defence of Taiwan has become a buzzword in US domestic politics. That is very dangerous,” Wu said. “You are not preventing a war, you are provoking a war.”
Danny Russel, vice-president at the Asia Society Policy Institute and a former senior adviser to Barack Obama, noted that “both sides seem to want the leaders’ meeting in Bali to lower the temperature in an overheated relationship”.
“Washington is mindful of the risk of an unintended incident quickly escalating into a crisis,” Russel added.
“The best hope for slowing or halting escalating bilateral tensions — perhaps the only hope — is for these two men who know each other well and have established a solid relationship to speak openly about their strategic goals and concerns,” he said.
Additional reporting by Kathrin Hille in Taipei