Updated Nov 14, 2022 - World

Biden meets Xi at G20 amid rising superpower tensions

Chinese leader Xi Jinping and President Biden shake hands as they meet on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

BALI, Indonesia — President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping began their meeting Monday on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Indonesia, where they were set to discuss how to manage rising competition between the two superpowers.

Why it matters: It's the first in-person meeting between the two leaders since Biden took office. U.S.-China relations have fallen to their lowest point in decades amid tensions over tech competition, cybersecurity, China's support of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Taiwan, and China's military build-up.

What they're saying: “As 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 ever nearing conflict and to find ways to work together on urgent global issues that require our mutual cooperation,” Biden said as the meeting kicked off.

  • “The world expects, I believe, China and the United States to play key roles in addressing global challenges,” Biden added.
  • Xi said through an interpreter: "The world has come to a crossroads. Where to go from here? This is a question that is not only on our mind but also on the mind of all countries. The world expects that China and the United States will properly handle the relationship.”

Details: Both sides aim to prevent further deterioration in the bilateral relationship, but beyond that have kept expectations low. A White House official told reporters last week that no joint announcements were expected after the meeting.

  • "We just got to figure out where the red lines are and what are the most important things to each of us going into the next two years," Biden told reporters on Sunday.
  • The meeting will provide an opportunity to establish “the right way forward for bilateral relations,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a press conference on Friday. But "we will firmly defend our sovereignty, security and development interests.”

Of note: Biden and Xi are meeting just as both have recently passed major domestic hurdles that will shore up their standing.

  • The Democratic Party unexpectedly maintained control over the Senate after the midterm elections last week, and Xi secured a highly unusual third term as the ruling Chinese Communist Party leader at the 20th Party Congress last month.

Background: Washington and Beijing have been laying the groundwork for the meeting for several months with a series of high-level meetings and calls between U.S. and Chinese officials, including a two-hour video call between Biden and Xi in July.

  • But the Chinese government cut off several key communication channels with the U.S. after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan in August, the first time a House speaker had visited the island in 25 years.

Between the lines: "While this meeting is unlikely to produce much in the way of deliverables, it will nevertheless be welcomed by Southeast Asian nations fearful about a superpower showdown in their backyard," said Craig Singleton, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, DC.

  • The Biden administration can hope for guardrails, Drew Thompson, visiting fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, told Axios.
  • "But if China decides to pursue its interests using military force, using economic coercion, then we’re left with, once again, looking for the floor to a relationship that we’re not entirely certain has finished devolving," Thompson said.

The big picture: Divisions over geopolitical tensions and global crises are casting a shadow over a summit that is ostensibly intended to focus on the economy and sustainable development.

  • For Western nations, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has implications energy, trade and food security, which are topics at the G20.
  • But China, India, Brazil, Indonesia and other countries have signaled in recent meetings that they would rather stick to business and economy.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with details after the meeting opened.

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