BALI, Indonesia — President Joe Biden said Monday that he told his Chinese counterpart on Monday that Beijing has “an obligation” to dissuade its neighbor, North Korea, from test-firing nuclear missiles and that the U.S. would take unspecified “defensive” action should the provocations continue.
At a news conference following a three-hour meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Biden did not specify how the U.S. might respond to further nuclear tests by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. He added that any actions the U.S takes in reprisal “would not be directed against China, but would send a clear message to North Korea: We are going to defend our allies as well as American soil and American capacity.”
Biden also said he does not believe that rising tensions with China have devolved into a new “cold war.”
“We’re going to compete vigorously, but I’m not looking for conflict” with China, the president said. “I’m looking to manage this competition responsibly. And I want to make sure that every country abides by the international rules of the road.”
Biden’s first face-to-face meeting with Xi since taking office was months in the making. It took place during a summit of the Group of 20, whose nations comprise about 80 percent of the global economy.
A readout of the meeting provided by the White House indicated the two leaders sought to find common ground. They agreed that America’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, will travel to China to build on the discussion.
Biden told the Chinese president that he wants to work collaboratively with China to improve public health, curb world hunger and limit global warming. Senior officials on both sides will communicate with one another to make progress on these and other issues, the U.S. statement said.
The two leaders came into the meeting at a volatile moment in the world’s most consequential bilateral relationship. North Korea has been stepping up missile tests — firing nearly two dozen one day this month — and the U.S. believes China should use its clout to pressure Kim to back off. “We know that Beijing has influence in Pyongyang,” the North Korean capital, a senior administration official told NBC News. “Beijing probably has more influence in Pyongyang than in any other capital.”
In the meantime, Chinese military exercises near Taiwan have sparked concerns of a potential invasion of the self-governing island, which China claims as part of its territory. China was incensed over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August, touching off a prolonged round of drills.
“I don’t think there’s any imminent attempt on the part of China to invade Taiwan,” Biden said. “We want to see cross-strait issues peacefully resolved so it never has to come to that. I’m convinced that he [Xi Jinping] understood exactly what I’m saying. I understood what he was saying.”
Biden’s dealings with Xi require a deft diplomatic touch. He needs to be both tough and conciliatory as he tries to deter China from menacing Taiwan and bullying U.S. allies in the region, while gaining Xi’s cooperation in curbing North Korea’s nuclear program and limiting the effects of climate change.
Making the task even trickier, Biden’s countrymen largely hold a dim view of China, meaning there’s little space for him to placate Beijing. More than three-quarters of U.S. adults have viewed China in an unfavorable light over the last two years, according to the Pew Research Center.
The two leaders greeted each other cordially as the talks began. They met at about 5:40 p.m. local time in front of a row of American and Chinese flags. Biden walked toward Xi with his right hand outstretched and as they shook, he clasped Xi’s hand with his left.
“Good to see you,” said Biden, who met many times with Xi when both were vice presidents of their respective countries. The leaders then turned and faced the cameras for a photo before walking into the meeting room and taking their seats at long, rectangular tables that faced one another across about a 12-foot gap. Each leader was flanked by nine aides. On their side, Xi’s deputies wore masks with an imprint of the nation’s red flag.
The mood in the room was tense. Xi pointed to the pronounced differences between the world’s two greatest powers in brief opening comments.
“Currently, the China-U.S. relationship is in such a situation that we all care a lot about it, because this is not the fundamental interests of our two countries and peoples and it is not what the international community expects us,” Xi said according to the English translation of his comments.
“As leaders of the two major countries, we need to chart the right course for the China-U.S. relationship. We need to find the right direction for the bilateral relationship going forward and elevate the relationship.”
As reporters were ushered out of the room, a TV producer called out a question asking if Biden would raise the issue of human rights in China. A man from the Chinese side then pulled the producer backwards, causing her to lose her balance. As she was pushed toward the door, White House staff members intervened and said to leave her alone, according to a pool report of the incident.
Arranging the meeting took painstaking negotiation that one senior administration official hinted grew contentious at times. In their most recent phone call in July, both Biden and Xi agreed that they would instruct their aides to explore the possibility of an in-person meeting. The two had spoken virtually or by phone five times since Biden was sworn-in.
“Both sides had an interest in having this meeting happen,” the official said.
A point made by each leader in his opening remarks was that face-to-face diplomacy is imperative with so much at stake.
“As you know, I’m committed to keeping the lines of communications open between you and me personally but our governments across the board, because our two countries are — have so much that we have an opportunity to deal with,” Biden said in his statement.