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Biden seeks to establish red lines in high-stakes meeting with China’s Xi

The White House, amid deteriorating relations with China, downplayed any hope of a major breakthrough before Biden’s face-to-face meeting with Xi Jinping.

BALI, Indonesia — On the eve of his first face-to-face meeting with his Chinese counterpart since he took office, President Joe Biden got some news that could give him more leverage.

NBC News and other outlets projected that Democrats have won enough seats to keep control of the Senate, defying the historical odds in midterm elections. “I know I’m coming in stronger” to the meeting Monday with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Biden told reporters, exulting over a surprising political victory at a conference of Southeast Asian leaders.

A key test for Biden is whether he can use his strengthened position to reduce tensions in the bilateral relationship, which has global consequences. Biden sorely needs Xi’s cooperation if the U.S. is to curb threats of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, deter North Korean missile launches and help end Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Even so, the White House is downplaying any hope of a major breakthrough when Biden sits down with Xi in person. 

Relations have deteriorated to the point where the central goal of the summit, in the eyes of Biden administration officials, seems to be keeping things from getting even bleaker. Seldom has a presidential meeting with so much at stake also carried such low expectations for what might practically be achieved.

Scott Kennedy, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, predicted a few possible outcomes for the meeting, among them that it devolves into a “screaming match” or tit-for-tat lectures that “leave things exactly where they are, or worse.”

A successful meeting would result in the two sides’ opening more lines of communication at lower levels of government, Biden administration officials said. They also hope Biden and Xi will come away with a better sense of each other’s nonnegotiable positions and “red lines.”

“I wouldn’t look at this as a meeting that will generate a specific deliverable or policy outcome,” a senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk more freely. “It’s a chance for these two guys to continue the conversations they’ve had.”

After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., visited Taiwan in August, China cut off routine communications with the U.S. military in retaliation, the official said. 

That is the sort of channel the U.S. wants to preserve, the official added. “We’d like to see this meeting form a foundation for keeping the channels of communication open at a lower-than-leader level.”

The two countries spent weeks quietly planning the sit-down while Biden and Xi are in Bali for a conference of the Group of 20, whose 19 countries, along with the European Union, account for about 80% of the global economy.

“There’s value in leaders talking to each other,” said Robert O’Brien, a national security adviser in Donald Trump’s White House.

Biden’s meeting with Xi is the centerpiece of a weeklong foreign trip that has also taken him to Egypt and Cambodia for meetings about the environment, the economy and global security.

A tough challenge for Biden will be coaxing Xi — a steely negotiator — to drop prepared talking points and engage in a more honest and free-flowing discussion, foreign policy analysts said.

“I don’t think personal diplomacy will help that much,” said Victor Cha, who was a director for Asian affairs in George W. Bush’s White House. “Each has his set of talking points he wants to go through, and the interaction will be tense and ‘candid.’”

President Biden andChinese President Xi Jinping in Bali, Indonesia.
His meeting Monday with Chinese President Xi Jinping was the centerpiece of a weeklong trip abroad by President Biden. Alex Brandon / AP

The two leaders, who both served as vice presidents in their respective countries, have developed a personal tie during their political ascents. Biden likes to tell a story about how they discussed the larger meaning of the U.S. in a visit to China when he was former President Barack Obama’s No. 2.

But their relationship has faced mounting challenges since each became president. When a reporter suggested last year that they were old friends, Biden bristled and replied, “It’s just pure business.”

While Biden is naturally garrulous and informal, experts are skeptical about his chances of luring Xi into an open-ended back and forth. (“That’s not Xi’s style,” O’Brien said.) And given the mutual suspicion in Washington and Beijing, the mood is not expected to be chummy.

The Biden administration sees Xi as the leader of a bullying nation with visions of global dominance. “Many of our allies and partners, especially in the Indo-Pacific, stand on the frontlines of [China’s] coercion and are rightly determined to seek to ensure their own autonomy, security, and prosperity,” the administration said in a national security strategy paper released last month.

Still, the U.S. hopes to find ways to work cooperatively with China, particularly when it comes to areas where their interests may align, like global stability. Biden will press Xi to use his influence to roll back North Korea’s nuclear program, administration officials said. The hermit kingdom has been stepping up tests of ballistic missiles, stoking fears among U.S. allies, including Japan and South Korea.

“We recognize that with each launch, [the North Koreans] learn something,” the senior Biden administration official said. “And that’s not good for anybody in the peninsula and in the region. So the president looks forward to being able to talk about the larger international community’s concerns about where things are going in Pyongyang.”

At an East Asian summit meeting Sunday, various leaders approached Biden to discuss the Democrats’ success in keeping control of the Senate, said Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser.

Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said: “Look, it will impact the confidence with which Biden goes into the conversation” with Xi. “No doubt about that.

“I’d much rather Biden go into this conversation with the outcome we had in the midterms than if things were more difficult,” he said.

But like Biden, Xi will also arrive having fortified his position at home. Across the table from Biden will be a Chinese president who has tightened his hold on the top spot after he secured a historic third term last month.

H.R. McMaster, who was a national security adviser in the Trump White House, said Biden must deliver an unflinching message to Xi, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, one that leaves no doubt that the U.S. has “the resolve to compete with him and that we’re not going to back off.”