First meeting between Presidents Biden and Xi, few expectations


NOS News

  • Sjoerd den Daas

    correspondent China

  • Sjoerd den Daas

    correspondent China

US President Biden and Chinese President Xi will meet today in Bali. It is the first time that the two most powerful men on earth have met as heads of state, but expectations are not high in the run-up to their tête-à-tête. The most achievable seems to be a discussion about so-called car guards; a conversation to ensure that relations between the world’s largest economies do not derail further.

Xi, who cemented his power domestically last month by securing a highly unusual third term as party chief, is on the way out again. After almost three years of self-isolation, he was seen earlier this autumn at a regional summit in Uzbekistan and was visited by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Now party chief Xi is in Bali for his first meeting with the leaders of the world’s largest economies in three years.

Biden and Xi will have few illusions ahead of the G20. With both men, there is little in the suitcases to give the greatly cooled relationship a new push.

“It’s hard to see any willingness on the part of either country to stop the downward spiral,” said Bruce Dickson, a professor of political science at George Washington University. “The more moderate voices seem to have been pushed aside.”

‘All or nothing’

After the visit of Speaker Nancy Pelosi of the US House of Representatives to Taiwan, the already fragile relationship cooled further. China has indicated that relations with the United States are not an à la carte menu: for Beijing, it is all or nothing, Washington insists.

However, it is not entirely quiet on the line: US climate envoy John Kerry met Xie Zhenhua, China’s climate chief, several times at the climate summit in Sharm-el-Sheikh. It was the first time since the US under President Trump withdrew from the Paris climate agreement.

For China, the G20 should be about the corona pandemic, a pandemic that continues to disrupt daily life in China in the form of harsh lockdowns and far-reaching travel restrictions. About economic recovery, recovery that it so desperately craves in our own country. And about the climate.

“Earth is the home we all live in. We need to move towards a common future for humanity,” Xi said at last year’s G20 in Rome, a summit he attended via video link. “We need to strengthen economic cooperation,” said foreign spokesman Zhao Lijian when asked about China’s involvement in this G20.

No geopolitics

These are the topics Beijing likes to talk about. Beijing especially does not want the G20 to be overshadowed by geopolitics, so it is propagated in Chinese state media. However, Beijing would still prefer to talk about Ukraine over human rights abuses in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong or the situation around Taiwan, which Xi has consistently dismissed as an ‘internal matter’. Every single one of these topics the Biden administration has put on the agenda for today’s meeting.

The two men know each other well, from when Biden was already vice president (2009-2017). As presidents, they have spoken to each other five times so far, on the phone and in video calls. It didn’t do much, as expectations are still low.

Confrontation dominates, as evidenced by a series of US sanctions that should affect the Chinese chip industry. Zhao stated that China and the US should avoid “misunderstandings and miscalculations”, expressing the hope that mutual relations can be lifted to the “right track” of “healthy and stable” development.

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