More than two years after he became president of the United States, Joe Biden will meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping for the first time in Bali on the sideline of the G20 Summit next Monday, as Beijing and Washington try to "build a floor" for their bilateral relationship amid rising tensions.
Before he left for the week-long trip, during which he also made stops in Egypt and Cambodia, Biden told reporters that he wouldn't be willing to make any concessions when he meets Xi Jinping, and he hoped both sides would lay out the red lines and try to resolve areas of conflict, including the Taiwan issue.
Analysts say the purpose of the meeting is to strengthen guardrails in US-China relations to ensure their competition doesn't escalate into full-blown conflict caused by misperception. "The very symbolism of a face-to-face meeting between the two leaders conveys that the US and China may be fierce competitors, but not sworn enemies of each other," said Wen-Ti Sung, a lecturer in Taiwan Studies at the Australian National University (ANU).
Other experts say since Washington has repeatedly expressed the desire to talk about risk reduction measures with Beijing, there are hopes the in-person meeting may help prevent the bilateral relationship from spiraling.
"To stabilize US-China relations, I think the plan is to let the leaders have a strategic conversation and discuss how this relationship shouldn't be allowed to move to conflict," said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). "It's always important that the leaders are talking to one another, and it at least provides an opportunity for each leader to present their views, their concerns, and their policies."
During the 20th Party Congress last month, Xi highlighted external attempts to "blackmail, contain, blockade, and exert maximum pressure" on China but said Beijing and Washington needed to find ways to "get along." Meanwhile, the US has introduced a series of export control measures aimed at limiting China's access to advanced technologies.
Taiwan at top of agenda
According to senior White House officials, issues related to Taiwan will be at the top of the agenda, as Biden plans to "be honest" about its concerns about China's recent activities that threaten the peace and stability across and Taiwan Strait, as well as its longstanding concerns regarding human rights violations in China.
Tensions have grown between China and the United States since US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the democratic island in August, prompting Beijing to respond by staging a week-long military exercise around Taiwan. In addition to its provocative military moves near Taiwan, Beijing also suspended bilateral dialogues and exchanges on several key issues with the US.
While Washington hopes to resume military and climate dialogues through this in-person meeting between the leaders, the senior US official said there was no expectation that Biden and Xi would solve all existing problems between the two superpowers.
Bonnie Glaser told DW that it's extremely difficult to make progress when it comes to stabilizing US-China differences over Taiwan, especially when the meeting in Bali is the first between Xi and Biden since Pelosi's trip to Taipei. "The Biden administration has made it clear that they believe China used the visit as a pretext to put on a major military display and intimidate Taiwan," she said.
"Whereas the Chinese view is that it was the Pelosi visit that was destabilizing and was the cause of the problem. Their perspectives are diametrically opposed and it's hard to envision that there can be a way forward on this issue," she added.
Before the trip, White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan told journalists that the US would brief Taiwan on the results of the Biden-Xi meeting, which prompted Beijing to urge Washington not to share details of the meeting with Taipei.
"What the US said about briefing Taiwan on the meeting between the Chinese and the US heads of state gravely violates the one-China principle and the stipulations of the three China-US joint communique," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, adding that the move would be "truly egregious" and China firmly rejects it.
Sung from ANU told DW that Sullivan's move to publicly announce Washington's plan to share details of the meeting with Taiwan shows the US is actively pursuing public diplomacy in Taiwanese society. "It is to reassure not just the Taiwanese government but also the Taiwanese public opinion," he said.
However, Glaser from GMF warns that the move could bring negative consequences to the bilateral relationship between China and the US. "It'll be seen by Beijing as unnecessarily provocative," she told DW.
Discussions expect to touch on North Korea and the Ukraine War
Apart from Taiwan, Biden and Xi are also expected to discuss North Korea and the war in Ukraine. The senior US official said North Korea's repeated missile tests are an area where Beijing and Washington had a history of working together. Jake Sullivan said Biden wouldn't make demands on China but would give Xi his perspective and urge Beijing to play "a constructive role in restraining North Korea's worst tendencies."
Additionally, the senior US official also acknowledged that they have paid attention to Xi's remarks about not using nuclear weapons in Ukraine following his in-person meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz last week. Since the war broke out in February, China remains reluctant to publicly criticize Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Sung from ANU told DW that it'll be difficult for China and the US to cooperate on these issues, and he expects Washington and Beijing to have "straightforward, frank and earnest” conversations on these issues. "Both sides are likely to lay out their interests and positions, but largely talk past one another and fail to find common grounds to develop roadmaps around it," he said.
"North Korea is an issue over which scope for US-China cooperation exists, as neither stands to gain from a smaller rogue actor running amok, destabilizing regional order and risk dragging superpowers into conflicts of accidental escalation," he added.
Glaser from GMF says she doesn't think there will be any cooperation or dialogue on Ukraine between Xi and Biden. "I think the United States will perhaps say something positive about the fact that Xi said publicly when Scholz visited that China is opposed to the use of nuclear weapons and maybe explore whether he might do something else," she told DW.
"My view is that the US will leave it up to the Chinese to decide what they would do. The US assessment is that the direction of travel in the China-Russia relationship is towards closer alignment and a close overlap in Chinese and Russian interests. They see no prospect for driving the wedge between the two countries," she added.
As all sides try to predict what might come out of the Biden-Xi meeting, Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at the Renmin University of China, says he expects US high-tech containment, realignment of critical supply chains and diplomatic and the continuation of ideological competitions.
"There will be no substantial cooperation over North Korea's nuclear missile development, and there is no indication that the US will dismantle high tariffs on Chinese imports," he told DW. "Climate change cooperation will continue to stay largely at the rhetorical level, with concretes interwoven with mismatches of national policies and competition for influence."
"There may be a decision to somewhat restore bilateral military-to-military exchange, as both countries try to put a prime priority to conflict prevention," he added.