For Biden and Xi, a Long Relationship With Rising Mutual Suspicion

The men, who first met as vice presidents, plan to hold face-to-face talks for the first time as national leaders, and at a time when animus defines U.S.-China relations.

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For Biden and Xi, a Long Relationship With Rising Mutual Suspicion |

In 2011, Xi Jinping and Joseph R. Biden Jr., both vice presidents at the time, near Chengdu, China.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — According to President Biden, he and President Xi Jinping of China have traveled many miles together — 17,000 of them, he estimates — and have spent dozens of hours in meetings — 78, to be precise — in the years they have known each other.

But he often returns to a single interaction to explain the nature of their relationship, which has long been defined by Mr. Biden’s rosy view of democracy and Mr. Xi’s deep skepticism of it.

“I was with Xi Jinping in the Tibetan plateau,” Mr. Biden recalled at a fund-raiser in October, reciting a story he has shared at least 13 times this year, according to an analysis of his speeches. “And he turned to me and he said, ‘Can you define America for me?’ This is the God’s truth. He’s repeated it. I said, ‘Yes, one word: possibilities.’”

Their meeting in southwest China in 2011 was not actually in the Tibetan highlands, and the number of miles they have traveled is an exaggeration, but it was still once Mr. Biden’s job to cross the world to get to know Mr. Xi. During that visit, he publicly thanked Mr. Xi, who was then the Chinese vice president, for his “straightforward” nature and predicted that the United States and China were on a “positive” trajectory in a relationship that would rest on both mutual cooperation and competition.

Now, the two plan to face each other on Monday for the first time as national leaders before the summit of the Group of 20 countries in Bali, Indonesia, at a time when suspicion and animus define the relationship between the United States and China.

Mr. Biden said Wednesday that he would discuss with Mr. Xi “what each of our red lines are” to determine whether the critical interests of their countries “conflict with one another.” He continued, “And if they do, how to resolve it and how to work it out.” He said he expected Taiwan and trade to be among the topics.

Even as vice president, Mr. Biden privately sensed that a relationship with Mr. Xi, whom he found to be unsentimental and wary of American power, could become increasingly difficult to manage: “I think we’ve got our hands full with this guy,” Mr. Biden told advisers in a White House meeting after he returned to Washington from China in 2011.

It was a prescient assessment, though perhaps an understatement: As president, Mr. Biden has treated the Chinese leader more like a Cold War-era nemesis than the calculating bureaucrat he once knew.

ImageSince Mr. Biden took office in January 2021, the two leaders have spoken five times by phone or video call.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

“The Biden administration has essentially ended the era where the United States supported China’s rise and supported its entering economic relationships around the world,” Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said. “The rationale for that was that it would ultimately reform China. The Biden administration has announced we no longer believe that.”

Mr. Xi is the son of a Communist revolutionary leader who was a compatriot of Mao Zedong. He grew up within the upper echelons of the party system, alongside the military elite, and sees himself as a guardian of the party’s legacy and its primacy. The nationalism he has stoked in China is in service of that, and it increasingly manifests itself as anti-American fervor.

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Mr. Biden is a politician who is proud of his ability to develop lengthy diplomatic relationships by infusing the political with the personal. But in Mr. Xi, he sees a leader who has evolved from a tough counterpart into a relentless autocratic ruler who has tightened his grip on power domestically and grown more confrontational as a global adversary.

The Biden administration has since aggressively moved to put checks on China’s ability to further its technological and military ambitions, which has drawn fiery rebukes from Beijing.

China “is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to advance that objective,” Mr. Biden wrote in a national security strategy document released in October. A defense strategy released by the Pentagon later that month outlined China as a growing threat, emphasizing its efforts to bolster its nuclear arsenal.

“Biden and Xi are meeting at a time when both leaders likely see themselves as holding the upper hand,” Jude Blanchette, a China scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said. “Many in the U.S. think China’s slowing economy and diminishing prestige in many foreign capitals is dimming Beijing’s star, while Xi is likely looking to Biden’s low approval ratings, the state of the economy, and the likely power transition in Congress as signs of continued American decline and dysfunctionality.”

Liu Pengyu, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said China was focused on helping “address severe challenges such as world economic sluggishness and disarray in global governance” at the Bali summit. The meeting follows a trip by Mr. Biden to Cambodia, where he plans to speak with leaders of Southeast Asian countries as part of a larger effort to shore up relationships that could help counter China’s influence in the region.

Mr. Liu added that the United States needed to “stop distorting China’s strategic intentions and stop doing anything that undermines China-U.S. relations.”

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Since Mr. Biden took office in January 2021, the two leaders have spoken five times by phone or video call. But their lengthy discussions have not resolved a range of deep disagreements, including acrimony over what American officials view as China’s dismal track record on human rights and permissive stance toward the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Chinese officials complain about the Trump-era tariffs that Mr. Biden has kept on Chinese goods, and they say Mr. Biden’s alliance-building efforts in Asia are aimed at containing China.

Tensions have sharpened in recent months over other issues, including Mr. Xi’s efforts to establish security arrangements with other governments and Mr. Biden’s aggressive new campaign to choke off China’s access to critical semiconductor technologies.

But their most combustible dispute is over Taiwan. No recent American president has taken a bolder stand on the issue than Mr. Biden. He has said four times that the U.S. military will defend Taiwan if China attacks it, though other American officials insist that is not formal policy. He has sent U.S. naval ships through the Taiwan Strait as the Chinese military takes more aggressive actions there. And his administration has pushed Taiwan to stockpile weapons to become a “porcupine” able to deter an invasion by the People’s Liberation Army.

ImageTaiwan has increased tension between the two nations.Credit…Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

Senior advisers to Mr. Biden have said he has been “direct and honest” about America’s interest in Taiwan during their conversations. But Mr. Xi has used more aggressive language in his warnings: “Those who play with fire will perish by it,” he told the president during a marathon call in July, according to the Chinese foreign ministry.

A senior Biden administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak freely, said Mr. Xi’s isolation during the coronavirus pandemic — he has traveled overseas only once since the pandemic began — had made it harder to understand his motivations. American officials and allied leaders will work in Bali to send a united message on important issues, the official said, because it would be “helpful” for Mr. Xi to know that major nations are aligned in their thinking.

Before Mr. Biden was elected, Mr. Xi had grown used to cloying overtures from an American president. President Donald J. Trump spoke often about his kinship with Mr. Xi — “He’s for China, I’m for the U.S., but other than that, we love each other,” Mr. Trump said in 2020 — but was just as capable of lacing his valentines with rants over trade and the coronavirus. In an appearance early this month, Mr. Trump again praised Mr. Xi, calling him “president for life” and a “king.”

The relationship with Mr. Biden, by contrast, has been characterized by growing mutual suspicion and escalating conflict — much of it driven by Mr. Xi’s drive for power and prestige on both a personal and national level, in the view of American officials.

Although he faces governance challenges, Mr. Xi, unlike Mr. Biden, finds himself at the apex of his political power. He steered Communist Party elders into stocking the new iteration of the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee and other top ranks of the party with his loyalists. There is no obvious internal challenger or successor.

Mr. Xi broke from a recent norm by maneuvering to remain in power as party secretary for more than two five-year terms, an extension announced last month at the 20th party congress.

“Washington’s stereotype about the Communist Party as a monolith used to be flawed, because there was in fact diversity, dissent and pushback within the party,” Yuen Yuen Ang, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, said. “But Xi’s complete consolidation of power at the 20th party congress now validates this stereotype. It has confirmed Biden’s perception that U.S.-China competition is a moral, existential battle between democracy and autocracy.”

ImageMr. Xi broke from a recent party norm by remaining in power as party secretary for more than two five-year terms.Credit…Noel Celis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

To rid himself of opposition inside the party, Mr. Xi acted ruthlessly when he became China’s leader in 2012, months after he toured the United States at the invitation of Mr. Biden. He started a so-called anti-corruption campaign that resulted in party purges. Mr. Biden and other U.S. officials had expected that Mr. Xi would follow the tradition of consensus rule.

Kevin Rudd, president of the Asia Society and former prime minister of Australia, said Mr. Xi is a break from the other Chinese leaders who followed Mao — he has “brought that era of pragmatic, nonideological governance to a crashing halt.”

“In its place, he has developed a new form of Marxist nationalism that now shapes the presentation and substance of China’s politics, economy and foreign policy,” Mr. Rudd wrote in a new essay on Mr. Xi in Foreign Affairs. “Under Xi, ideology drives policy more often than the other way around.”

Some U.S. officials and analysts disagree with the “Marxist” characterization but say there is no doubt Mr. Xi has prioritized national security, societal control and unyielding authoritarianism as foundational to governance — the opposite of Mr. Biden’s ideology, a bedrock belief in democracy.

That has been manifest in Mr. Xi’s hard-line policies on the pandemic, ethnic minority regions and Hong Kong, as well as territorial moves and military activities around Taiwan and elsewhere in Asia, placing him in direct conflict with Mr. Biden.

American officials debate whether Mr. Xi truly sees himself as a messianic figure on par with Mao. If so, some say, he might aim to seal his legacy by bringing Taiwan under Communist Party rule.

Taiwan and security issues have been central to every leadership talk between Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi, overshadowing Mr. Biden’s insistence that the United States and China can cooperate on climate change, health security and other global crises. U.S. officials expect the same in Bali.

“Naturally, Xi feels threatened: He knows that under Biden, the Chinese Communist Party has a formidable and determined rival,” Ms. Ang said. “The new Cold War is here to stay and will escalate.”


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