President Joe Biden will sit down with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday for their first in-person meeting since the U.S. president took office nearly two years ago, amid increasing tensions between the two superpowers as they compete for global influence.
Both men are coming into the highly anticipated meeting — held on the margins of the Group of 20 summit of world leaders in Indonesia — with bolstered political standing at home. Democrats triumphantly held onto control of the Senate, with a chance to boost their ranks by one in a runoff election in Georgia next month, while Xi was awarded a third five-year term in October by the Community Party's national congress, a tenure that broke with tradition.
“We have very little misunderstanding,” Biden told reporters in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where he participated in a gathering of southeast Asian nations before leaving for Indonesia. “We just got to figure out where the red lines are and ... what are the most important things to each of us going into the next two years.”
Biden added: “His circumstance has changed, to state the obvious, at home.” The president said of his own situation: “I know I’m coming in stronger.”
White House aides have repeatedly sought to play down any notion of conflict between the two nations and have emphasized that they believe the two countries can work in tandem on shared challenges such as climate change and health security.
But relations between the U.S. and China have become increasingly strained during Biden's presidency.
Before leaving Washington, Biden said he planned to raise with Xi the differences in their approach to the self-governing island of Taiwan, trade practices and China's relationship with Moscow amid its nearly nine months-old invasion of Ukraine. Chinese officials have largely refrained from public criticism of Russia's war, although Beijing has avoided direct support such as supplying arms.
Taiwan has emerged as one of the most contentious issues between Washington and Beijing. Multiple times in his presidency, Biden has said the U.S. would defend the island — which China has eyed for eventual unification — in case of a Beijing-led invasion. But administration officials have stressed each time that the U.S.'s posture of “strategic ambiguity” toward the island has not changed.
Tensions flared even higher when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., visited Taiwan in August, prompting China to retaliate with military drills and the firing of ballistic missiles into nearby waters.
The Biden administration also blocked exports of advanced computer chips to China last month — a move meant to bolster U.S. competition against Beijing and one that was quickly condemned by Chinese officials.
And though the two men have held five phone or video calls during Biden's presidency, White House officials say those encounters are no substitute for Biden being able to meet and size up Xi in person. That task is all the more important after Xi strengthened his grip on power through the party congress, leaving U.S. officials seeking direct engagement with Xi as lower-level officials have been unable or unwilling to speak for the Chinese president.
Many of Biden’s conversations and engagements during his three-country tour — which took him to Egypt and Cambodia before he landed on the island of Bali on Sunday — were, by design, preparing him for his meeting with Xi and sending a signal that the U.S. would compete in areas where Xi has also worked to expand his country's influence.
In Phnom Penh, Biden sought to assert U.S. influence and commitment in a region where China has also been making inroads and where many nations feel allied with Beijing. He also sought input on what he should raise with Xi in conversations with leaders from Japan, South Korea and Australia.
The two men have a history that dates to Biden's time as vice president, when he embarked on a get-to-know-you mission with Xi, then China's vice president, in travels that brought Xi to Washington and Biden through travels on the Tibetan plateau. The U.S. president has emphasized that he knows Xi well and he wants to use this in-person meeting to better understand where the two men stand.
Biden was fond of tucking references to his conversations with Xi into his travels around the U.S. ahead of the midterm elections, using the Chinese leader's preference for autocratic governance to make his own case to voters why democracy should prevail. That view was somewhat validated on the global stage, as White House aides said several world leaders approached Biden during his time in Cambodia to tell him they watched the outcome of the midterm elections closely and that the results were a triumph for democracy.
Biden planned to deliver public remarks and take questions from reporters after his meeting with Xi.