It is fair to say that expectations for the meeting between Joe Biden, the US president, and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in Bali, Indonesia, on 14 November were low. Both sides had made clear that there would be no joint statement and no “deliverables”, as diplomats call specific agreements made at such meetings. Instead, US officials told reporters that the purpose of the talks was to “build a floor” under the deteriorating relationship, which the American ambassador to Beijing, Nicholas Burns, described this summer as being at its lowest point since Richard Nixon first travelled to China in 1972.
Measured against that low bar, the meeting was a success. The two leaders shook hands and greeted each other warmly in front of the cameras, before holding more than three hours of talks, accompanied by their senior advisers. While they have had a number of virtual meetings over the last 18 months, this was their first in-person encounter since Biden became president in January 2021. Afterwards both sides characterised the discussions as being “candid” and thorough, noting the importance of continuing their dialogue. This in itself was arguably the most important outcome after China suspended talks with the US on a range of issues, including military communication and climate change, following the US House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August.
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“I’m not suggesting this is kumbaya,” Biden said in response to a reporter’s question at a news conference afterwards, “but I do not believe there’s a need for concern, as one of you raised a legitimate question, [of] a new Cold War.” He described Xi as being as “direct and straightforward” as he had always been – the two men have known each other since Biden was vice-president – and stressed that he saw no imminent sign that China was preparing to invade Taiwan, the self-governing island that Beijing claims as its own. The White House readout said they had also agreed that “nuclear war should never be fought” and underlined their opposition “to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine”. This was not mentioned in the Chinese version, however, which characterised the conflict as a “complicated issue [that] does not have a simple solution”.
On the substance, there was less cause for optimism. According to the White House summary of the talks, Biden told Xi that there had been no change to US policy on Taiwan and raised concerns about China’s “coercive and increasingly aggressive actions” towards the island. In response, Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, reported that Xi had urged the US to “match its words with action” and stressed that China’s position on the issue was non-negotiable. “The Taiwan question is at the very core of China’s core interests,” he is reported to have said, and a “red line that must not be crossed”. In other words, both sides are blaming the other for the increasingly combustible situation.
Both sides are clear too about the long-term, systemic rivalry between their countries. The new US national security strategy, published in October, characterises China as “the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to advance that objective”. In recent weeks, the Biden administration has announced new export controls on sales of advanced semiconductor technology to China that are intended to scuttle Xi’s ambitions for the industry. For his part, Xi also warned last month of “dangerous storms” on the horizon and the importance of standing firm against “protectionism and bullying” by foreign powers, clearly alluding to the US. He reiterated the need to use “all necessary measures” to secure control of Taiwan.
In the context of this intensifying rivalry, it is encouraging that the two leaders are talking, and that both have signalled their commitment to keeping the lines of communication open. This is a welcome and important development. But it does not alter the long-term strategic contest between the two powers or lessen the extraordinary stakes involved.
[See also: How Xi Jinping views the world]