Joe Biden, buoyed by the military breakthrough in Ukraine and Democrat retention of the US Senate, said he would seek to establish red lines in the US’s relationship with China when he meets President Xi Jinping on Monday before the G20 summit of world leaders in Bali.
At an Asian summit on Sunday in advance of his first bilateral with Xi, Biden laid down some firm parameters about freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and warned China against attempting an invasion of Taiwan, to which it lays claim. But he also said he wanted to keep lines of communication open with Beijing.
“I know Xi Jinping, he knows me,” he added, saying they had always had “straightforward discussions”.
The two have known each other for more than a decade, since Biden’s time as vice-president, but Monday will be their first face-to-face meeting as leaders.
“We have very little misunderstanding. We just got to figure out what the red lines are,” Biden said. His aides say they are looking for a formula with China that allows competition and coexistence.
Setting out his vision for the region guided by the rule of law, Biden said: “We’ll build an Indo-Pacific that is free and open, stable and prosperous, resilient and secure.”
The US president was speaking at the close of the East Asia summit in Cambodia, the first of four he is attending in the region. Following the meeting with Xi in Bali he will attend the two-day G20 summit on Tuesday and Wednesday, followed by a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Bangkok.
With the Democrats retaining control of the Senate and the Republicans immersed in an angry inquest about their failure to achieve an effective majority in Congress, Biden has averted the threat of becoming a lame duck president that other countries can afford to ignore for the next two years. Biden himself said of his meeting with Xi in the wake of the midterms: “I know I am coming in stronger.”
Many of the key players in south-east Asia are reluctant to get sucked into taking sides in a US-China confrontation. Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, for instance vowed on Sunday not to let south-east Asia become the frontlines of a new cold war, saying Indonesia would not become “a proxy to any powers”. He said the region must become peaceful and an anchor for global stability.
Biden is likely to press China to do more to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, and push for more ambitious carbon reduction targets. In August, China suspended climate talks with the US after the visit to Taiwan by the US House speaker, Nancy Pelosi.
Xi is also likely to complain about a formidable round of new US export controls implemented in October that aim to curb China’s ability to obtain advanced chips, develop and maintain supercomputers, and manufacture advanced semiconductors for military applications.
China objects to what it regards as the weaponising of trade, while the ministry of foreign affairs accused the US of attempting to create an Asia-Pacific version of Nato with Australia, Japan and South Korea to “disrupt security and stability” in the region.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, eager to remain in China’s slipstream but fearing public isolation at the summits, has decided not to go to the G20, sending his veteran foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, instead. Russia’s fear is that Xi is increasingly willing to distance himself from Russia’s attack on Ukraine, and at minimum willing to repeat that he opposes the threat or use of nuclear weapons, words he used alongside the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, earlier this month.
The US is uncertain where the Putin-Xi relationship is heading. Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defence for policy who is close to Biden, said last week that Chinese leaders had “been much more willing to signal that this thing is edging toward an alliance as opposed to just a superficial partnership”. Biden by contrast said: “I don’t think there’s a lot of respect that China has for Russia or for Putin.”
Lavrov, speaking at a news conference in Phnom Penh, made an appeal to China by trying to paint the US as the country trying to dominate the region. “The United States and its Nato allies are trying to master this space,” he said. The US’s plan would involve “the militarisation of this region with an obvious focus on containing China, and containing Russian interests in the Asia-Pacific”, he added.
He said Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy was an attempt to bypass “inclusive structures” for regional cooperation.
In advance of the G20, the Russian foreign ministry urged its leaders not to focus on security issues, a code for Ukraine, but instead look at long-term issues being touted by the Indonesian hosts, including food security and digital transformation. The Russian diplomatic pitch is designed to appeal not just to China but to the members of the global south who feel the war is wrecking their economies.
In a move designed to appeal to the global south, Turkey and Russia say they have reached a deal whereby Russian grain will be sent to poor countries such as Djibouti, Somalia and Sudan free of charge.
Turkey has been the mediator in efforts to keep the supply of Ukrainian and Russian wheat flowing from Black Sea ports.
In July, Turkey mediated a UN plan by which Russia lifted a blockade on Ukrainian wheat exports through the Black Sea in return for restrictions on Russian wheat being lifted. The agreement is up for renewal on 19 November, three days after the G20 summit concludes.
Russian claims about Ukrainian responsibility for the grain blockade are part of a months-long wider propaganda battle to persuade “hedging countries” that it is the west that wants to preserve a skewed international world order even if it damages the global economy.
The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is due to address the G20 by video link. He will accuse Russia of human rights abuses and creating famine in developing countries by blocking the export of wheat from Ukraine.