The US and China disagree on so many things, across so many spheres, that other world leaders are increasingly warning of a deeper rupture that could split the global economy.
With the stakes rarely higher, President Joe Biden heads to Bali, Indonesia, for his first meeting with China’s Xi Jinping since taking office last year with promises to try to keep the relationship from getting worse and to reduce the risk of war over Taiwan. But the mood in both Washington and Beijing is only trending toward more confrontation, especially over the island that China claims as its own.
Biden will show up for the Monday meeting, which will take place on the sidelines of a Group of 20 summit, with a better hand than anticipated after Democrats posted better-than-expected results in the midterm elections, including retaining Senate control. That will give him more room to manoeuvre and make it harder for Republicans to scuttle his foreign-policy agenda. He told reporters in Cambodia that “I’m coming in stronger’’ to the meeting with Xi.
The Chinese leader doesn’t need to worry about pushback at home, particularly after he purged potential rivals at a Communist Party congress last month and set himself up to rule for years to come. But he’s also facing mounting pressure over the strict “Covid Zero” policy that has hurt China’s economy and sparked increasing public discontent.
The question is whether these two leaders, whose nations’ economies are so deeply intertwined, are headed toward a permanent separation or can find a way to at least calm relations in a face-to-face meeting. US officials have been cautious to keep expectations low, saying there will be no major announcements — or “deliverables,” in Washington parlance.
For the time being, the hope is that Biden and Xi can agree to restart military and climate cooperation that was halted after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan over the summer, infuriating China. Progress beyond that will be a harder sell. Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy, who may be in line to replace Pelosi, has said he wants to visit Taipei — a move that could again feed military tensions in the region.
Biden’s team accuses China of ignoring the status quo on Taiwan and ramping up tensions with a more aggressive posture toward the self-governed island. China similarly blames the US for stoking tensions, pointing to Pelosi’s visit and repeated remarks by Biden suggesting that American troops would defend Taiwan in the event of war — something no US president has explicitly committed to doing.
“They understand that there is the risk of action-reaction cycles leading to higher tension, then leading to more problems,” said Kurt Tong, a former US diplomat who served across Asia, including as consul general in Hong Kong and is now at the Asia Group consultancy.
Where once the US and China worked together to bolster global economic activity, lately they’ve been embroiled in a trade war, tit-for-tat sanctions and mutual condemnation. They offer fundamentally different views of the world and — a bigger concern for countries around the globe — seem to be asking governments to choose between them.
In private discussions, some officials from other countries say they want the US to make a concerted push to improve relations with China for the good of the region, especially given heightened fears of great-power conflict in Ukraine. Biden will discuss Ukraine and North Korea with Xi, but is approaching the meeting as a way to build a floor under the US-China relationship and prevent any further downward spiral in ties, one senior US official told reporters.
It’s not as if the two leaders have never met: Biden has said that in his lengthy career as a senator and vice president, he and Xi have spent about 67 hours together in person. “We hope the US can work with China and play its responsible role in maintaining world peace and development,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing on Friday.
Still, the room for manoeuvring has narrowed as more hawkish sentiments prevail in both Beijing and Washington. Relations plunged under former President Donald Trump and remain poor in Biden’s administration over trade, technology, Taiwan, human rights and the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“What I want to do with him when we talk is lay out what each of our red lines are,” Biden told reporters Wednesday. “Understand what he believes to be in the critical national interest of China, what I know to be the critical interest in the United States. And to determine whether or not they conflict with one another.”
Biden intends to argue that the People’s Republic of China should work with the US to restrain North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and military provocations — or face the prospect of an expanded American military presence, according to National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.
“If North Korea goes down this road, it will simply mean further enhanced American military and security presence in the region,” Sullivan told reporters on Air Force One on Saturday morning. “And so the PRC has an interest in playing a constructive role in restraining North Korea’s worst tendencies. Whether they choose to do so or not is of course up to them.”
The run-up to the meeting has echoes of a similar encounter Biden had in the first summer of his administration, when he travelled to Geneva to sit down with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The language and the messaging was almost identical, with the US goal to set guardrails on the relationship and keep it from getting any worse. Less than a year later, Russia invaded Ukraine and the US has severed almost all ties with Russia.
The China relationship is a different thing altogether given how closely the world’s two largest economies are now intertwined, on everything from Apple Inc’s China-built iPhones to rare earth metals, solar panels and cheap consumer goods. Biden is also under pressure from many more nations — such as security partners across Southeast Asia — that worry a war over Taiwan would devastate them too.
“Beijing’s priority is about what it can show the world from the meeting, rather than what it can directly gain from the meeting given the lack of hope about improving US-China relations,” said Yun Sun, a senior fellow and director of the China Program at the Washington-based Stimson Center. “To get US concessions and cooperation is important but is not the only priority.”