Nov 15, 2022 - World

Biden-Xi meeting presses pause on U.S.-China free fall

A screen on the streets of Hong Kong showing Biden and Xi shaking hands.

A screen in Hong Kong shows a public news broadcast of Xi and Biden on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Bali, on Nov. 14. Photo: Lam Yik/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Monday's meeting between President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping struck a positive tone — a notable change after several years of rapidly deteriorating bilateral ties.

Why it matters: Fears of a looming U.S.-China conflict, or even the outbreak of war, have been rising in both countries amid tensions over Taiwan, China's military buildup, tech competition, tariffs, sanctions and cybersecurity.

  • The meeting in Bali was a "deliberate effort to stabilize a dangerously overheated relationship," said Danny Russel, who served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs from 2013 to 2017.

Details: In a nearly three-hour meeting on the sidelines of the G20, Biden and Xi discussed how to manage competition between their two countries and agreed to create channels for their top officials to communicate regularly. 

  • Biden said that while the U.S. should "compete vigorously" with China, he didn't want a new cold war.
  • Xi acknowledged the current state of U.S.-China relations was not meeting global expectations and must be put on an "upward trajectory."

Between the lines: Successfully securing a third term, as well as pressure from other countries, may have led Xi to prioritize easing tensions with the U.S., analysts say.

  • "A newly empowered Xi has chosen to use the political strength he has consolidated at home to begin to stabilize the U.S.-China relationship, showing more flexibility than previously. Plenty of differences remain, but this was a positive step," Amanda Hsiao, senior China analyst with International Crisis Group, noted.
  • "This meeting took place on the margins of the G20 and both leaders have been holding meetings with other leaders," said Russel.
  • They "have been getting an earful on the need for the two major powers to avoid conflict and to help, not hinder, on the big global challenges of the day: climate, public health, food security, developing country debt," he added.

The view from Beijing also seems to be that the meeting was a welcome thaw. 

  • “This meeting was both a continuation of exchanges up to now and augurs a new starting point,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said after the meeting.

Of note: The two leaders said they would resume climate cooperation, which Beijing had cut short after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan earlier this year.

  • “The nod to the resumption of U.S.-China climate talks is welcome news for the entire planet," said Thom Woodroofe, who works on U.S.-China climate cooperation at the Asia Society Policy Institute.
  • "But geopolitics cannot continue to be the tail that wags the climate dog between the world’s two largest emitters."

Yes, but: The meeting did not resolve any specific, major areas of contention, including on Taiwan, where the U.S. and China's respective goals are at odds.

  • Biden emphasized that America's "One China" policy had not changed, and the U.S. continues to oppose a unilateral change in the cross-strait status quo.
  • Xi said that Taiwan is purely China's domestic affair and that no other country should interfere.

What to watch: Both sides will need to follow through with their agreements for the thaw to stick.

  • Closer communication between top aides in Washington and Beijing, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken's proposed visit to China, will be key benchmarks.
Go deeper