Biden said there was “little substitute to face-to-face” contact with Xi as the two men shook hands earlier Monday against a backdrop of flags. Biden said the two men had “blunt” disagreements but pledged to continue talking.
Few concrete accomplishments were achieved but just meeting at all was seen as an important step towards deescalation.
“The world has come to a crossroads [and] we need to chart the right course,” said Xi, whose words were translated into English. “The world expects that China and the United States will properly handle the relationship.”
The two men, along with their small team of aides and translators, then disappeared to begin their meeting, which lasted about three hours.
The high stakes for the summit felt incongruous with its backdrop: the sun-splashed beaches of Bali, normally a balmy vacation playground but on this day host to two dueling geopolitical behemoths. The summit was almost two years in the making and came at a moment of rising tension between the two nations.
Taiwan was to be a centerpiece of the conversation. Multiple times in his presidency, Biden has said the US would defend the self-governing island — Beijing has long sought for eventual unification — in case of a Chinese invasion. But each time, administration officials have stressed the US posture of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan had not changed.
After the meeting, both sides released statements making it clear that the issue remained a flashpoint. The White House said the president “raised objections” to China’s “coercive and increasingly aggressive actions toward Taiwan, which undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and in the broader region, and jeopardize global prosperity.”
But China’s own statement sent a clear warning to the United States and its allies to leave Beijing to its own devices with Taiwan.
“It is the common aspiration of the Chinese people and nation to realize national reunification and safeguard territorial integrity,” the statement read. “Anyone who seeks to split Taiwan from China will be violating the fundamental interests of the Chinese nation; the Chinese people will absolutely not let that happen!”
There were some places of agreement.
The two nations pledged to restart climate talks and agreed their senior advisors should resume communication after months of silence. Biden said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will soon travel to Beijing.
The president also pushed Xi on his relationship with Russia. Xi and Russia’s Vladimir Putin declared a friendship “without limits” between their two countries in February, just days before Russia invaded Ukraine.
But since then, Russia’s war has faltered and Putin — who was set to skip the G-20 — has been turned into a global pariah. China has largely refrained from public criticism of the war but, while it has not supplied arms to Moscow, continues to be a significant buyer of Russian energy, helping finance Putin’s war machine. Both Xi and Biden agreed “a nuclear war should never be fought and can never be won and underlined their opposition to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine,” according to the White House statement.
In the news conference afterward, Biden suggested that Ukraine’s win in Kherson — recapturing what had been a Russian prize — was “a significant victory” in the war and pledged Washington would continue sending aid to Kyiv.
Back home, the meeting’s results prompted GOP skepticism. “I don’t see what the president got out of the meeting,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Seems like China is the only one to walk away with a win with the promise of a visit by Secretary Blinken — I fear the president is not projecting strength.”
But the Biden-Xi summit buoyed hopes for some in the US business community waiting for relief in rancor between the two nations. The meeting could eventually yield a new framework “to advance confidence building measures and tackle long standing issues in the bilateral relationship,” Craig Allen, president of the US-China Business Council, said in a statement.
The fact that Monday’s meeting came together was being sold as a win. US officials had been eager for Biden to meet face-to-face with Xi, to take measure of the changes within a man with whom he spent considerable time while vice president. And both men came into the meeting emboldened, with a renewed grip on power.
Xi recently secured another five-year term as president during a Communist Party congress and some observers believe he could eventually make a bid to hang onto power for life. Biden, meanwhile, was bolstered by Democrats’ historic showing in last week’s midterms, the best showing in decades for a president and his party in power.
For Biden, the trip has become something of a victory lap.
The president was in Cambodia on Sunday when an election call in Nevada ensured that Democrats would keep control of the Senate, even as the House remained up for grabs. Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, told reporters that many of the world leaders Biden has encountered in Asia have congratulated him on his party’s wins.
“What we saw was the strength and resilience of the American democracy and we saw it in action and the American people proved once again that democracy is who we are,” Biden told reporters Monday. “There was a strong rejection of election deniers at every level from those seeking to lead our states and those seeking to serve in Congress, and also those seeking to oversee the elections.”
The president did acknowledge the limit of his renewed political capital, suggesting Democrats still did not have the votes needed to codify federal abortion rights.
But Biden’s in-person meeting with Xi highlighted the growing gulf between two countries that used to believe they could cooperate at least on global crises and trade. Even its Indonesian location — a neutral site on the sidelines of a multinational summit — hinted at the frosty relations as US officials conceded it was difficult to conceive of the two meeting anytime soon in either Washington or Beijing.
Nearly all communication had ceased between Washington and Beijing the week of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August trip to Taiwan, a visit that infuriated the Chinese. And there was public saber-rattling in the runup to the Bali bill, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian declaring China “will firmly defend our sovereignty, security and development interests while Biden said he was “not willing to make any fundamental concessions.”
But Biden again reiterated Monday that while he viewed the 21st century as a rivalry between the US and China he said he sought “competition, not conflict.” Further straining ties, the Biden administration blocked exports of advanced computer chips to China last month. That move, which was meant to bolster US competition against Beijing, was quickly condemned by Chinese officials. The administration has also left in place Donald Trump-era tariffs on more than $350 billion worth of Chinese goods due to alleged unfair trade practices.
White House aides have left open the possibility that the two leaders could meet again next year.
“Any verbal agreement with Xi should not be relied on or taken seriously given the Chinese leader’s long record of saying one thing and doing something else,” said John Lee, a former Asia adviser to the Australian government, now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute think tank. Instead, Biden’s focus this week should be to discuss ways to work more closely with Asian allies and partners to constrain China’s strategic options and deter Beijing from considering the use of force to realize its objectives.”
But Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center, dismissed Monday’s meeting as “a non-event.”
“I don’t see any sign that either country is willing to change its assessment of the other, its intentions or its goals. So there’s a desire to understand [each other] which is good, but there’s no indication that either country is yet ready to reconsider any of its positions,” he said.
Daly, the former cultural exchange officer at the US embassy in Beijing, did call news about Blinken’s trip to China encouraging.
“A real face to face summit tends to mobilize bureaucracies, tamps down rhetoric, and provides at least an illusion of deliverables or some form of progress,” he said.
The Monday summit was the main event of Biden’s week in Asia. And the shadow of China has loomed over all of it.
In a speech to a gathering of Asian nations in Phnom Penh on Saturday, Biden pledged to help stand against China’s growing dominance in the region — without mentioning the other superpower by name. The US has long derided China’s violation of the international rules-based order — from trade to shipping to intellectual property — and Biden tried to emphasize his administration’s solidarity with a region American has too often overlooked.
Phelim Kine and Stuart Lau contributed to this report.