Biden and Xi shake hands as they meet amid superpower tensions

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President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping opened their first in-person meeting on Monday since the US president took office nearly two years ago, aiming to “manage” differences between the superpowers.

Mr Xi and Mr Biden greeted each other with a handshake at a luxury resort hotel in Indonesia, where they are attending the G20 summit of large economies, before they sat down for what was expected to be a conversation lasting several hours.

Mr Xi said he hoped they would “chart the right course for the China-US relationship” and that he was prepared for a “candid and in-depth exchange of views” with Mr Biden.

He called on Mr Biden to “elevate the relationship” between China and the US.

Both men entered the highly anticipated meeting with bolstered political standing at home. Democrats triumphantly held onto control of the US Senate, with a chance to boost their ranks by one in a run-off election in Georgia next month, while Mr Xi was awarded a third five-year term in October by the Communist Party’s national congress, a break with tradition.

“We have very little misunderstanding,” Mr Biden told reporters in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Sunday, 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.”

Mr 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 emphasised that they believe the two countries can work in tandem on shared challenges such as climate change and health security.

But relations between the US and China have grown more strained under successive American administrations, as economic, trade, human rights and security differences have come to the fore.

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US President Joe Biden walks with Chinese President Xi Jinping before their meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit meeting (Alex Brandon/AP/PA)

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, Mr Biden has said the US 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 US’s “One China” policy has not changed. That policy recognises the government in Beijing while allowing for informal relations and defense ties with Taipei, and its posture of “strategic ambiguity” over whether whether it would respond militarily if the were island attacked.

Tensions flared even higher when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi 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 national security move that bolsters US competition against Beijing. Chinese officials quickly condemned the restrictions.

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Joe Biden talks to Indonesian President Joko Widodo during their bilateral meeting ahead of the G20 Summit in Indonesia (Achmad Ibrahim/AP/PA)

That task is all the more important after Mr Xi strengthened his grip on power through the party congress, as lower-level Chinese officials have been unable or unwilling to speak for their leader.

Asked about the anticipated meeting, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said last week at a news briefing that China was looking for “win-win cooperation with the US” while reiterating Beijing’s concerns about the US stance on Taiwan.

“The US needs to stop obscuring, hollowing out and distorting the One China principle, abide by the basic norms in international relations, including respecting other countries’ sovereignty, territorial integrity and noninterference in other countries’ internal affairs,” he said.

Mr Xi has stayed close to home throughout the global Covid-19 pandemic, where he has enforced a “zero-Covid” policy that has resulted in mass lockdowns that have roiled the global supply chains.

He made his first trip outside China since start of the pandemic in September with a stop in Kazakhstan and then onto Uzbekistan to take part in the eight-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organisation with Vladimir Putin and other leaders of the Central Asian security group.

Indonesia G20
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan disembark their plane upon arrival at Ngurah Rai International Airport ahead of the G20 Summit in Indonesia (Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana/Pool Photo via AP/PA)

US officials were eager to see how Mr Xi approaches the Biden sit-down after consolidating his position as the unquestioned leader of the state, saying they would wait to assess whether that made him more or less likely to seek out areas of cooperation with the US.

Mr Biden and Mr Xi each brought small delegations into the discussion, with US officials expecting that Mr Xi would bring newly-elevated government officials to the sit-down and expressing hope that it could lead to more substantive engagements down the line.

Before meeting with Mr Xi, Mr Biden first held a sit-down with Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who is hosting the G20 summit, to announce a range of new development initiatives for the archipelago nation, including investments in climate, security, and education.

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