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4 takeaways from President Biden's 'very blunt' meeting with China's Xi Jinping

President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping hold a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Bali on Monday.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping hold a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Bali on Monday.

NUSA DUA, Indonesia — A highly anticipated meeting between China's leader Xi Jinping and President Biden finished Monday with both leaders expressing an openness to restoring channels of communication and repairing a relationship that has been compared to a second Cold War.

The leaders of two superpowers met face-to-face and unmasked on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, on Monday evening. In a substantial meeting, they touched on the war in Ukraine, military tension in the Taiwan Strait and North Korean missile tests.

Biden said he and Xi were "very blunt with one another." Xi, according to his spokesperson, viewed the meeting as "in-depth, candid and constructive."

Here's what you need to know about their three-hour discussion.

A "baby step" — but a step in the right direction

Biden and Xi both said in their opening remarks that they were looking for ways to coexist despite their disagreements. The two spent lots of time together when they were both vice presidents more than a decade ago — and both men referenced their lengthy relationship in warm greetings before the talks began.

"Do I believe he's willing to compromise on certain issues? Yes," Biden told reporters afterward about his meeting with Xi. "We were very blunt with one another about places where we disagreed."

Today's meeting was the first face-to-face exchange between the two since Biden became president. It took place after both leaders had just strengthened their respective political positions at home, analysts say.

Yu Jie, a senior research fellow on China at the London-based think tank Chatham House, says that given Biden's "reasonable success" in the midterms, he is in a stronger position to steer Washington's relationship with Beijing.

And for Xi, Yu says his further consolidation of power in the Chinese system may leave him more space for conducting diplomacy. "Xi is keen to resume a routinized mechanism and dialogue to steady the bilateral ties with Biden," she says.

President Biden speaks at a press conference on the eve of the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia.
/ Christoph Soeder/DPA/Picture Alliance/Getty Images
Christoph Soeder/DPA/Picture Alliance/Getty Images
President Biden speaks at a press conference on the eve of the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia.

U.S. officials share this relative optimism. "The fact of a leaders' meeting coming together has created space in the Chinese system, for reopening what we believe to just be simply ongoing work between our side to get things done," a senior administration official told reporters before the meeting.

In what analysts called a "breakthrough," Beijing and Washington said they would resume climate talks that had been frozen following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's controversial visit to Taiwan in August, which Beijing claims as its own. The White House said the leaders "agreed to empower key senior officials to maintain communication and deepen constructive efforts."

However, Yu warns that Monday's meeting is just "a baby step" towards improving relations: "It will not resolve any substantial grievances both sides have had against each other, but only slowing down the deterioration of their relations."

The State Department said that Secretary of State Antony Blinken will also visit China in person sometime early next year to follow up on the Xi-Biden meeting.

Taiwan, technology and human rights remain areas of intense disagreement

During their meeting, Biden and Xi did not resolve the key issues that have driven competition and disagreement between the U.S. and China.

Last month, the U.S. imposed dramatic export bans on certain advanced semiconductor technology — trade sanctions explicitly designed to hobble critical technology sectors like military modernization and artificial intelligence that are important to China.

Meanwhile, according to the U.S. readout, Biden "raised concerns about PRC practices in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, and human rights more broadly." China has long insisted these issues are of "internal affairs" and has warned against "external interference."

"The world is big enough for the two countries to develop themselves and prosper together," tweeted Hua Chunying, a foreign ministry spokesperson who accompanied Xi in his meeting with Biden.

On Taiwan, despite intense media speculation over Beijing's intention, Biden said he did "not think there's any imminent attempt on the part of China to invade Taiwan."

Chinese military helicopters fly past Pingtan island, one of mainland China's closest points to Taiwan, on Aug. 4, following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to the self-ruled island.
/ Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images
Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images
Chinese military helicopters fly past Pingtan island, one of mainland China's closest points to Taiwan, on Aug. 4, following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to the self-ruled island.

But the president objected to Beijing's "coercive and increasingly aggressive" Chinese actions in the waters around Taiwan, according to the White House readout, adding such behaviors "undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and in the broader region, and jeopardize global prosperity."

China regards the "Taiwan question" an internal matter. It is "at the very core of China's core interests, the bedrock of the political foundation of China-U.S. relations, and the first red line that must not be crossed in China-U.S. relations," wrote Hua, the spokesperson, on Twitter after the meeting ended.

Both Chinese and American militaries have recently been beefing up their capabilities in case of a conflict over Taiwan. For Washington, this is also a part of the broader paradigm shift in its strategy in the Indo-Pacific region. After decades of concentrating its fighting power in the Middle East, the U.S. is now shifting its focus to Asia.

China is watching closely, too. Xi recently appointed a new slate of top military leaders from China's Eastern Theater Command, which encompasses Taiwan, indicating that going forward, the island is a priority for China's fighting forces. Last week, he urged his military to "focus all its energy on fighting."

Ukraine and North Korea were elephants in the room

The U.S. has pushed China to take a clearer stand against Russia's war in Ukraine, which China has tried to remain neutral on despite signing a partnership with Moscow in February.

Some analysts say China appeared to be blindsided when Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Beijing has called repeatedly for a peaceful, negotiated end to the war.

During their meeting, Xi and Biden agreed "that a nuclear war should never be fought and can never be won and underscored their opposition to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine," according to the White House statement. The Chinese readout included no mention of nuclear weapons.

The two leaders also spoke about North Korea — a longstanding regional security issue. Biden warned if Beijing is unable to rein in Pyongyang's weapons ambitions, the U.S. would beef up its presence in the region — a move that will be read by Beijing as a threat to its own security.

U.S. domestic politics also plays a role

Last year, China's foreign minister Wang Yi put out three core demands — "bottom lines" — that China wanted the U.S. to agree to in order for relations to improve: to not get in the way in the country's development, to respect China's claims over places like Taiwan and to respect Beijing's Communist Party rule.

From Beijing's perspective, the U.S. has since done the opposite on all counts. It has imposed the semiconductor export bans and sanctioned some of China's leading technology firms — moves Beijing decried.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has upped ties with Taiwan, with lawmakers including Pelosi visiting the island since August. Congress isconsidering drawing on the U.S. weapons stockpile to arm the island at American expense. Biden stressed in the press conference after meeting Xi that U.S. policy on Taiwan remains unchanged.

And while Biden came in to the G20 with a stronger position due to the narrow Democratic victory in the battle to control the Senate, he is up for reelection in two years himself.

Many in China now worry that should Republicans win the presidency in 2024, the U.S. will take an even more starkly hostile position against it.

Aowen Cao contributed research from Beijing.

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Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
Vincent Ni
Vincent Ni is the Asia Editor at NPR, where he leads a team of Asia-based correspondents whose reporting spans from Afghanistan to Japan, and across all NPR platforms.