Did Joe Biden and Xi Jinping Lower the Risk of War Over Taiwan?

In the moments before Joe Biden and Xi Jinping met in Indonesia on Monday for the first time as heads of state, it wasn’t clear what tone Xi would strike. Dealings between the world’s two most powerful countries have deteriorated to their most hostile status in half a century. Xi, the general secretary of China’s Communist Party, is adept at political theatrics that convey a mood or an advantage, but, at the Grand Hyatt in Bali, he greeted Biden with a ready smile and a handshake that suggested there might be hope for, as China’s government later put it, a “return of China-U.S. relations to a healthy, stable track of development.” It was a warm encounter at a chilly time––though any “return” to the former track of relations between the two countries is a goal that sounds so implausible in Washington that it underscores the span of alienation from Beijing.

Xi and Biden have known each other since they met as Vice-Presidents in 2011, and they have talked by phone or video five times during Biden’s Presidency, but, until Monday, they had not met in person. The lack of a meeting conveyed the sense of mistrust between the two sides. Other routes of communications were dwindling, too: in August, after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in an act of protest against China’s encroachment, including its threats to invade, Xi’s government suspended climate talks and other dialogues over maritime safety, counter-narcotics, and transnational crime. In Bali, once the two sides had taken their seats, at a formal remove across an acre of flower arrangements, Biden nodded to the end of the hiatus: “It’s just great to see you,” he said, adding, “I’m committed to keeping the lines of communications open.”

It sounds like boilerplate, but the risk of miscommunication is real at a time when growing numbers of Chinese and American planes and ships risk collisions in Asia, and American officials worry that, the more Xi eliminates rivals in Chinese politics, the more his advisers may avoid delivering bad news of diplomatic relations. Even a hotline between the two countries has been unreliable, because, as my colleague Dexter Filkins wrote in the magazine this week, “sometimes the Chinese don’t pick up.”

Monday’s meeting lasted three hours, and, for the time being, the willingness to undertake more meetings seemed to be the most tangible result. White House officials announced that Secretary of State Antony Blinken will make his first trip to China, and climate envoys would resume negotiations, along with other “joint working groups.” Danny Russel, a vice-president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, who was a diplomat advising Biden during past meetings with Xi, told me he saw no sign of core concessions from either side. “But the white smoke emerging from their first in-person bilateral summit is encouraging. Direct dialogue and systemic engagement is a necessary, albeit not sufficient, condition for stemming the downward spiral of strategic rivalry,” he said.

The most sensitive issues, however, were left unresolved. Biden’s advisers were eager to hear if Xi would reveal any tension with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression. In February, Xi and Putin announced a “no limits” partnership between their countries, less than three weeks before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Their partnership, which many foreign governments took as a sign of China’s estrangement from Western democracy, has endured through Russia’s weakening military performance, human-rights abuses, and threats of nuclear weapons. But, recently, Chinese officials have shown flashes of frustration; according to the Financial Times, a Chinese official said that “Putin didn’t tell Xi the truth,” adding that some Chinese nationals living in Ukraine “died during the evacuation [although] we can’t make that public.” After Biden’s meeting with Xi, a White House summary said both leaders “underscored their opposition to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.” But the Chinese summary of the meeting made no mention of a joint position on nuclear weapons. Evan Feigenbaum, a vice-president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, tweeted that China’s silence on that point was “spectacularly unhelpful from the standpoint of publicly signaling Moscow just now.”

There is a long list of other points of tension, including China’s human-rights abuses in Xinjiang and elsewhere, American tariffs on Chinese goods, and export controls that will limit China’s access to advanced components in the semiconductor industry. None of those received top billing in this brief encounter, and each will continue to divide the two. The most pressing issue is the future of Taiwan—and, on that, the meeting made clear that neither side is prepared to negotiate their way to a lower risk of conflict. Since taking power in 2012, Xi has declared that the Communist Party’s long-running, unfulfilled goal of taking Taiwan “cannot be passed from generation to generation,” and, recently China’s army has made a show of staging military exercises—with amphibious landings—and dispatched forces to Fujian Province, near the Taiwan Strait. In Washington, those moves have heightened calls for the United States to pledge military support for Taiwan in the event of a conflict. Biden has gone further than any President in decades to say he would risk American lives to protect democracy in Taiwan, while insisting that the formal policy has not moved in the direction of greater autonomy for Taiwan.

In the press conference after his meeting with Xi, Biden reiterated that the policy “has not changed,” and sought to tamp down speculation: “I do not think there’s any imminent attempt on the part of China to invade Taiwan,” he said. But Chinese officials have struggled to reconcile Biden’s highly visible commitments to Taiwan with his insistence that nothing has changed. It can seem, at times, like a deliberate strategy of ambiguity. In China’s formal summary of the meeting, officials gestured toward the contradiction, writing, “It is hoped that the U.S. side will live up to its words.” Xi clearly hopes to nudge relations with America back into a calmer era. “History is the best textbook,” he told Biden, during their meeting. “So we should take history as a mirror and let it guide the future.” But, in Washington, the history of the U.S.-China relationship is considered an unsatisfying chapter, and it’s not clear that Xi has received a clear picture of that new reality through lower diplomatic channels.

In that respect, summits like the Bali meeting matter more than the turgid statements released afterward. After nearly two years of duelling rhetoric from afar, it was a chance for both men to assess, in person, the other’s changes since the last time they met, in 2017—adjustments in tone, urgency, confidence, and vulnerability. In their public comments, both men remarked on the “candor” of their exchanges, which sounds pro forma except that Xi’s predecessors, in contrast, were known for dutiful recitations of their talking points. Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former director for China at the National Security Council, told me that it seemed both sides suggested a basic desire “to show that they could manage competition without resorting to conflict.” He said, “They gave a signal to their respective teams to explore efforts to stabilize relations. The true measure of today’s meeting will be in where the relationship stands six months from now.”

Ultimately, the relationship—both personal and strategic—between these two leaders could prove to be of far greater consequence for geopolitics than anyone would have predicted more than a decade ago, when they travelled together in China and the United States. At the time, Xi was largely misread in the West as an up-and-comer with a fondness for business and trade, who was prone to the projected hopes among Western leaders that he turn China toward a more open future. Biden was a journeyman politico, with no obvious path to the Presidency, but enough of a fingertip feel for political body language that he told advisers of Xi, “I think we’ve got our hands full with this guy.”

Toward the end of his comments to reporters in Bali, Biden said he was not “suggesting this is kumbaya.” There will be many disagreements to come. “But I do not believe,” he went on, that the U.S. and China have entered “a new Cold War.” It was, it seemed, more a note of aspiration than of description. ♦

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