Biden wants to set ‘guardrails’ in Xi talks: White House

US president Joe Biden speaks virtually with Chinese leader Xi Jinping from the White House in Washington, US on 15 November 2021.Reuters

President Joe Biden wants his meeting with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Monday in Indonesia to repair lines of communication and help establish “guardrails” to keep the superpowers from conflict, US officials said.

“We are in competition. President Biden embraces that but he wants to make sure that that competition is bounded, that we build guardrails, that we have clear rules of the road and that we do all of that to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict,” a senior White House official said.

The official, one of two briefing reporters ahead of the meeting in Bali on the sidelines of the G20 summit, said Biden has the backing of “allies and partners” for his approach.

“There is broad support for our determination to build the floor under the relationship to increase communications responsibly,” the official said.

The overview of US goals for the talks with Xi reflects both the magnitude of the challenge in stabilising the US-China relationship and the low expectations.

There have been five phone and video exchanges with Xi since Biden took office at the start of 2021, but Monday’s talks will be their first in person since 2017, when Biden was vice president to Barack Obama. The last time Xi met a US leader was Donald Trump in 2019.

The Bali session comes with rising tension over Taiwan, where the United States supports the democratically elected, self-ruling government, while Xi’s government insists it will one day seize control.

‘Empower key officials’

There are also complex trade disputes between the world’s two leading—and mutually reliant—economies.

White House officials said the only specific deliverable hoped for in Monday’s talks would be formally resuming small-scale cooperation and communication which has largely dried up as a result of Beijing’s anger over Taiwan.

“Our view is that lines of communication should be open,” another senior official said.

“I expect that’s something that President Biden will make pretty clear to President Xi today: not only to open channels, but to empower key officials on both sides to really follow up on some of the meat of what the presidents are going to be talking about.”

Striking a note of optimism, an official said that the work that went into preparing the meeting had already “created space in the Chinese system” for broader dialogue.

“That’s all been happening very quietly,” the official said.

Biden hopes he and Xi can identify “transnational” issues for high-level cooperation, likely referring to climate change mitigation.

These are areas where “the world expects” the two countries to work together and where “we, as a responsible nation, certainly believe we should be,” an official said.

But increased cooperation there would not necessarily lead to a thaw on “thornier issues,” like Taiwan, the official said.

The goal is to “find ways to communicate” on those tougher areas, “because the only thing worse than... having contentious conversations is not having conversations at all.”