Biden and Xi met at the G-20 against a backdrop of high tensions

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NUSA DUA, Indonesia — President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping launched a high-stakes meeting here on Monday, the first in-person exchange between them as their nations’ leaders and at a time of extreme tensions between the global powers.

The encounter is Biden’s most consequential during a week-long foreign trip, with the two countries colliding on trade, the war in Ukraine, and economic and military threats and many fearing the US-China relationship could devolve into a cold war of sorts.

With aides and advisers looking on from long draped tables in a ballroom at the palatial Mulia resort — everyone in the delegations wearing masks except for the two principal figures — both presidents stressed the importance of face-to-face diplomacy and expressed hope they could get the US-China relationship back on track.

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“The world expects, I believe, the US and China to play a key role in global challenges, from climate change to food insecurity, and for us to be able to work together,” Biden said in his opening remarks. “The United States stands ready to do just that.”

Xi said a few moments later that “China-US relations currently face a situation that is not in the interests of the two countries, their people or the expectations of the international community. As the leaders of China and the United States, we must take the helm and steer the bilateral relationship in the right direction.”

As reporters were being ushered out of the room, a TV producer called out to ask Biden if he would raise human rights during the talks. A man on the Chinese side yanked the producer backwards by her backpack and she lost her balance but didn’t fall. Two White House staff members then intervened and said the producer should be left alone.

Each leader, in Bali for the Group of 20 summit, came to the table feeling newly emboldened. Xi has consolidated control — securing a third, norm-defying five-year term and consolidating power to a degree not seen since the days of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Biden is fresh off a midterm election in which his party did far better than expected and will maintain its Senate majority.

White House officials have been jubilant since last week’s Democratic showing in the midterm elections, with several reporting that foreign leaders have approached Biden to comment on his fresh domestic victories, referencing key states and districts with a striking familiarity that they said came even from counterparts who do not represent democracies.

The sit-down between Biden and Xi occurred on the third day of Biden’s swing through Asia. He first arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Saturday for a summit with Southeast Asian nations, where the US aim was to unite them as a counterweight to the rising economic and military threat China poses.

The US-China meeting began just after 5:30 pm local time and could extend for hours. The plan was for simultaneous translators, which US officials have often preferred as a way to expedite the dialogue so each leader doesn’t have to wait for the other to finish before translation begins.

The face-to-face is the result of months of quiet negotiations as diplomats laid the groundwork for the talks. Senior Biden administration officials cast those discussions as an improvement in the countries’ interactions even as they kept expectations low for any breakthrough because of the meeting. Biden and Xi have held five phone calls since the start of Biden’s presidency, but they have not met in person since 2017.

No joint statement, which is typical when the sides want to show progress and areas of agreement, is expected at the end of the meeting. White House officials said beforehand that they did not expect any major announcements.

Instead, they cast the moment as the start of a long process, one to help thaw a relationship rife with so much tension that even talks on issues of mutual interest, such as climate change, have sometimes been shut down. Officials said they know the United States is in “stiff competition” with China — and Biden “embraces that” — but that ongoing dialogue would be important to defuse conflicts.

“Lines of communication should be open. Period, full stop,” said a senior administration official ahead of the meeting. “The only thing worse than having a contentious conversation is having no conversation at all.”

One area the two men expected to discuss is economic rivalry. Biden has maintained tariffs that were imposed by President Donald Trump, and he has implemented restrictions on selling semiconductors and chip-making equipment to China.

“He wants to make sure that competition is bounded, that we develop guardrails, that we have clear rules of the road, and that we do all of that to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict,” said the administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preview the talks.

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Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen, speaking with reporters a few hours before the Biden-Xi meeting, said she anticipated the conversation to include the state of the Chinese and world economies.

After decades of rapid growth, the Chinese economy has slowed significantly this year. Repeated lockdowns under Xi’s rigid “zero covid” policy and a heavily indebted property sector that accounts for one-fifth of the economy have been major factors. The International Monetary Fund said last month that the country’s annual growth rate is expected this year to be 3.2 percent, compared with more than 8 percent in 2021.

“First and foremost, the meeting today is intended to stabilize the relationship between the United States and China and to create a more certain atmosphere for US businesses so they understand what to expect,” Yellen said.

The treasury secretary reiterated that US companies are overly dependent on China as a source for critical products, including minerals needed to produce electric-vehicle batteries. But she suggested much of the $600 billion annual trade flows between the countries should continue.

“We want a more secure and more resilient supply chain. But certainly over a wide range of commercial activities — and US firms doing business in China — that’s certainly not something that we are intending to hamper,” she said.

Biden also planned to bring up long-standing issues that the United States has with China’s record on human rights. They have disagreed strongly over Taiwan, particularly after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the self-governing island that Beijing considers part of its territory in August. Xi had asked Biden to find a way to prevent her from visiting; in the aftermath of her trip, China suspended talks with the United States on a range of other issues.

“Both sides seem to want the leaders meeting in Bali to lower the temperature in an overheated relationship,” said Danny Russel, a former diplomat who advised Biden on past meetings with Xi and who is now vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute.

“Washington is mindful of the risk of an unintended incident quickly escalating into a crisis,” Russel added. “Beijing seeks to avoid another round of punishing US measures like the recent export controls on semiconductors.”

Going into the meeting, China had signaled it wants to put ties back on track and keep disagreements from spiraling into conflict. But the two sides have totally different ideas about how to establish guardrails, noted Chen Dongxiao, president of the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, a think tank.

“China defines the ‘floor’ from a strategic and political perspective, which is fundamentally about not letting the United States repeatedly threaten or harm China’s core interests,” he said, while Beijing sees practical measures alone as “unreliable and of little use.”

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The White House has found it notable that Xi warned for the first time against the use of nuclear weapons in Russia’s war on Ukraine when he sat down with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz last week. His comment was seen as a clear signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I think there is undeniably a discomfort in Beijing about what we’ve seen in terms of reckless rhetoric and activity on the part of Russia,” a second senior administration official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, told reporters on Monday. “I think it is also undeniable that China is probably both surprised and a little bit embarrassed by the conduct of Russian military operations.”

The meeting was held at the Mulia resort, where both the Chinese and Russian delegations are reportedly staying. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was not present when Biden and Xi arrived in their motorcades.

Earlier in the day, Russian officials dismissed claims that Lavrov had been transported to the hospital after taking ill as “the height of fakery.”

In the hours leading up to the high-profile meeting, groups of Russian and Chinese delegates milled around the grand lobby of the Mulia, which opens to a majestic view of palm trees lining the sea. The five-star resort, which has 526 rooms, had been largely emptied to accommodate the G-20 delegations, employees said.

Multiple bars and restaurants located within the resort were quiet except for waiters in masks and face shields. An Indonesian performer sat on the orange marble floor, playing the traditional Balinese bamboo rindik.

At 5 pm, as the sun began to set, press swarmed the entrance to the hotel as Biden and Xi arrived. Guided by security staff, the two leaders entered a ballroom where the meeting was held.

The Biden-Xi meeting is a reconnection of sorts for a relationship that developed more than a decade ago, when each man was vice president of his country and tasked with getting to know each other and foster greater understanding.

At one point, during a tour of a school in Los Angeles, they each displayed white T-shirts that read, “Fostering Goodwill Between America & China.” Biden’s shirt was in Mandarin, and Xi’s was in English.

Christian Shepherd reported from Taipei. David Lynch and Rebecca Tan in Nusa Dua contributed to this report.

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