UPDATED at 6:15 p.m. EST on 11/14/2022.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden started talks Monday on the Indonesian island of Bali, the first face-to-face meeting between the two leaders since Biden took office nearly two years ago.
The talks on the sidelines of the G20 summit came as the two world superpowers were locked in a strategic rivalry over trade, technology, defense and political clout.
The two leaders met at a beach hotel, walked down a hallway and shook hands in front of a row of their national flags before sitting facing each other in the middle of two identical, long tables, with their respective staffers sitting at either side.
Biden spoke first, saying he was “obliged to keep lines of communication open” and for the US and China to manage their differences and “prevent competition from turning into conflict.”
“The world is at a crossroads,” the Chinese president told his counterpart through an interpreter.
“We have to set the right course.”
“The world expects China and the United States to handle the relationship properly,” Xi said, adding he was ready for “frank… and in-depth exchanges of views.”
Xi and Biden are expected to discuss their respective “red lines” in what is proving to be an increasingly acrimonious relationship between world powers.
Tensions in US-China relations have flared up on several fronts in recent months, including over Taiwan and US restrictions on semiconductor supplies to China.
The meeting comes three weeks after Xi was reappointed to a norm-breaking third term as Chinese Communist Party leader and days after Biden received a political boost at home when the Democratic Party outperformed in the United States midterm elections expected.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan arrive at Ngurah Rai International Airport ahead of the G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, November 14, 2022. (REUTERS/Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana/Pool)
Xi landed on the Indonesian island a day after Biden, who arrived after attending a summit round hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Cambodia.
Last week, Biden told reporters that his focus for meeting with Xi will be “competition, not conflict,” but he’s also “unwilling to make any fundamental concessions.”
“What I want to do with him when we talk is set out what each of our red lines is and understand what he thinks is in China’s critical national interests,” Biden said, adding that they are doing it would address “how to work it out” if it conflicted with US interests.
That point was reiterated Sunday by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, who said, “The United States is prepared for tough competition with China but does not seek conflict.”
For his part, Xi is expected to reiterate his proposal of the “three principles of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation, and calls to chart the right path for bilateral ties,” according to a statement from China’s foreign ministry.
When asked about the meeting with Biden at a weekend news briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said China “will resolutely defend our sovereignty, security and development interests.”
“It is important for the US to work with China to properly manage differences… to avoid misunderstandings and miscalculations and to get China-US relations back on track,” Zhao said.
US officials said the meeting between the two leaders will be conducted with simultaneous translation and could last a few hours. Biden will hold a press conference late Monday.
One of the most contentious topics of discussion will be Taiwan. Beijing insists that the self-governing island is an inalienable part of China and Taiwan’s unification with the mainland is an internal matter in which no other country has the right to interfere.
Beijing has repeatedly accused Washington of supporting “separatist forces in Taiwan” and retaliated with increased military activity around the island after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit in August.
While denying there has been a change in US policy, Biden has said on numerous occasions that the US would help Taiwan in self-defense. US lawmakers are considering a new bill that could help increase military aid to Taiwan and speed up ongoing arms deals.
Alexander Huang, a professor at Tamkang University in Taipei and a former deputy minister of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, said he doesn’t expect the talks between Biden and Xi to see a major shift in disagreements over Taiwan.
“Both heads of state know that domestic issues have higher priority on their political agenda. Also, on the Taiwan issue, Biden and Xi need to ‘buy time’ before making a big decision,” Huang told RFA. “Taiwan also needs to buy time to strengthen its own defense.”
Since the strategic competition between the US and China is a long-term one, “it is advisable to stabilize bilateral relations between two nuclear powers,” Huang said, stressing the need to prevent an accidental conflict.
Another major topic of discussion will be the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has disrupted the world’s food supply and even fueled fears of nuclear war.
Though China and Russia have forged a closer partnership as both countries’ ties with the US have deteriorated, a senior US official said Monday that Chinese Premier Li Keqiang denounced the “irresponsibility” of nuclear threats at Sunday’s summit in Cambodia stressed.
Li “clearly emphasized sovereignty, the irresponsibility of nuclear threats and the need to ensure that nuclear weapons are not used in ways that some have suggested,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with ground rules established by the White House.
The US official added that there is “undeniably some uneasiness in Beijing over what we have seen regarding ruthless rhetoric and activities on the part of Russia.”
Chinese state media have not reported Li’s remarks in Cambodia.
U.S. President Joe Biden, left, speaks with Indonesian President Joko Widodo during their bilateral meeting ahead of the G-20 summit in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia Monday, November 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)
Ahead of Monday’s Xi-Biden meeting, the US president met with Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who has just assumed ASEAN’s rotating chairmanship and is hosting the G-20 summit in Bali.
Biden called the United States and Indonesia “two of the greatest democracies in the world.” He announced a $700 million aid package for infrastructure in Indonesia and said a new clean energy initiative would be unveiled on Tuesday.
Biden’s trip to Asia is part of a broader effort to signal greater commitment to Southeast Asia, where Indonesia is the greatest power and where the US and China are vying for influence.
The US President returns to Washington after the G-20 summit, while Vice President Kamala Harris takes a seat at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, better known as APEC, in Thailand on November 16-19.
This story has been updated to add background information on the differences over Taiwan.