With aides and advisers looking on from long draped tables — everyone in the delegations wearing masks except for the two principal figures — both presidents expressed hope they could get the U.S.-China relationship back on track.
“The world expects, I believe, the U.S. 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 remarks ahead of the meeting. “The United States stands ready to do just that.”
“We need to find the right direction for the relationship going forward, and elevate the relationship,” Xi said a few minutes later. “The world expects that China and the United States will properly handle the relationship. For our meeting, it has attracted the world’s attention.”
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 did 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 U.S. aim was to unite them as a counterweight to the rising economic and military threat China poses.
The U.S.-China meeting began just after 5:30 p.m. local time and could extend for hours. The plan was for simultaneous translators, which U.S. 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 didn’t expect any major announcements.
Instead, they cast the dialogue as a 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 communications should be open. Period, full stop,” said a senior administration official ahead of the meeting. “The only thing worse than having 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.
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 markedly slowed 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 U.S. businesses so they understand what to expect,” Yellen said.
The treasury secretary reiterated that U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.”
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 viewed 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 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 in Bali contributed to this report.