United States President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping have opened their first in-person meeting since the former took office nearly two years ago, aiming to “manage” differences between the superpowers as they compete for global influence amid increasing economic and security tensions.
Xi and Biden greeted each other with a handshake at a luxury resort on Indonesia’s Bali island on Monday, where they are attending the Group of 20 (G20) summit of large economies, before they sat down for what was expected to be a conversation lasting several hours.
“As the leaders of our two nations, we share responsibility, in my view, to show that China and the United States can manage our differences, prevent competition from becoming anything ever near conflict, and to find ways to work together on urgent global issues that require our mutual cooperation,” Biden said to open the meeting.
Xi said he hoped they would “chart the right course for the China-US relationship” and that he was prepared for a “candid and in-depth exchange of views” with Biden.
Reporting from the G20 summit, Al Jazeera’s diplomatic editor James Bays said there was little hope that anything particularly substantial would come out of the meeting.
“It’s about two leaders who know each other from the past, getting back to knowing each other again, and building a little more trust to try to remove some of the tension from the relationship,” Bays said.
“Both sides are saying they have got to find a way to work together. The White House briefing said they need red lines and have to work out what each other’s limits are on key issues.”
The two leaders entered the highly anticipated meeting with bolstered political standing at home.
Democrats triumphantly held onto control of the US Senate, with a chance to boost their ranks by one in a run-off election in Georgia next month, while Xi was awarded an unprecedented third five-year term in October by the Communist Party’s National Congress, a break with tradition.
“We have very little misunderstanding,” Biden told reporters in Cambodia on Sunday, where he participated in a gathering of Southeast Asian nations before leaving for Indonesia. “We just got to figure out where the red lines are and … what are the most important things to each of us going into the next two years.”
Biden added: “His circumstance has changed, to state the obvious, at home.” The president said of his own situation: “I know I’m coming in stronger.”
Relations have grown more strained under successive US administrations, as economic, trade, human rights and security differences have come to the fore.
As president, Biden has repeatedly taken China to task for human rights abuses against the Uighur people and other ethnic minorities, crackdowns on democracy activists in Hong Kong, coercive trade practices, military provocations against self-ruled Taiwan and differences over Russia’s prosecution of its war against Ukraine.
Chinese officials have largely refrained from public criticism of Russia’s war, although Beijing has avoided direct support, such as supplying arms.
Taiwan has emerged as one of the most contentious issues between Washington and Beijing.
Multiple times in his presidency, Biden has said the US would defend the island – which China has eyed for eventual unification – in case of a Beijing-led invasion.
Tensions flared even higher when US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August, prompting China to retaliate with military drills and the firing of ballistic missiles into nearby waters.
The Biden administration also blocked exports of advanced computer chips to China last month – a national security move that bolsters US competition against Beijing. Chinese officials quickly condemned the restrictions.
Before the meeting, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning had said China was committed to peaceful coexistence but would firmly defend its sovereignty, security and development interests.
“It is important that the US work together with China to properly manage differences, advance mutually beneficial cooperation, avoid misunderstanding and miscalculation, and bring China-US relations back to the right track of sound and steady development,” she said at a daily briefing in Beijing.