Joe Biden and Xi Jinping signal desire to improve ties despite Taiwan tensions

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Joe Biden and Xi Jinping used their first in-person meeting as leaders to signal a desire to improve US-China ties after relations between the two powers plunged to a multi-decade low.

With Taiwan tensions hanging over the meeting, the leaders agreed that senior officials would “maintain communication” on a range of global issues, including climate change, economic stability and food security, a White House readout of the meeting said. The US president later said that Antony Blinken, secretary of state, would visit China for further talks.

At a news conference after the meeting, which lasted three hours, Biden said he told Xi that US policy on Taiwan had not changed “at all” and that Washington remained committed to a peaceful resolution of tensions. But the White House said the president had raised concerns in private with Xi about China’s “increasingly aggressive” actions towards Taiwan.

The Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement that Xi warned Biden that Taiwan was at the “very core of China’s core interests” and that the issue was “the first red line that must not be crossed in China-US relations”.

Biden said he was “not looking for conflict” and that he wanted to manage US-China competition responsibly. “I absolutely believe there need not be a new cold war,” the president said.

Relations between Washington and Beijing hit a new low in August when China held large-scale military exercises around Taiwan, including firing missiles over the island, after Nancy Pelosi became the first US House Speaker to visit Taipei in a quarter of a century.

Beijing also shut a number of military and diplomatic channels, including halting communications with Washington on issues such as climate change, in response to the crisis. The situation also raised concern about possible accidental conflict, and generated more urgency in Washington to consider the possibility of a future war between the world’s two largest economies.

But a more positive note was struck on Monday with the leaders’ first in-person meeting, which followed five previous discussions on the phone and via video conference.

“In several months, we may look back on the Biden-Xi meeting as the first signs of an inflection point that began to decelerate the spiral towards conflict,” said Jessica Chen Weiss, a China expert at Cornell University.

“It’s encouraging that both sides agreed to empower senior officials to develop foundational principles for the relationship and working groups to make progress on specific issues,” Chen Weiss added.

While Biden’s public remarks were diplomatic, the White House said he voiced concern about Chinese policy on Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

US officials have increasingly warned about a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan, but Biden played down those concerns. “I do not think there’s any imminent attempt on the part of China to invade Taiwan,” he said.

Evan Medeiros, a former top White House China adviser who accompanied Biden when he met Xi in Beijing in 2013, said it was too early to say if the Bali meeting would help improve relations between the powers, partly because there was no sign that they had found common ground on Taiwan.

“When you cut through all the pomp and drama, Taiwan is the central issue and the pace setter for the overall relationship,” said Medeiros, now at Georgetown University. “The Bali meeting revealed that the best both sides can do right now is reduce misunderstanding about existing positions. That’s inherently fragile. Actually reaching new understandings appears far off.”

Biden said the two leaders had discussed the Russian invasion of Ukraine and “reaffirmed our shared belief that the threat or the use of nuclear weapons is totally unacceptable”. But the Chinese foreign ministry made no mention of the possible use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine in its statement.

John Lee, a China expert at the Hudson Institute, cautioned that the US should not take Xi at his word when he made promises to Washington.

“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 Lee, adding that Biden should use his attendance at the G20 to work with allies and partners to constrain China.

The Biden-Xi talks were held on the island of Bali on the eve of the G20 summit, which is being hosted by Indonesia.

They came as CIA director Bill Burns warned Russia against using nuclear weapons in the first known in-person meeting between senior officials of the two countries since President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Burns delivered his warning at a meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Naryshkin in Ankara, Turkey, on Monday, the US said.

Additional reporting by Kathrin Hille in Taipei

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