At G20 Summit, Xi and Biden Offer Rival Visions for Solving Global Issues
BALI, Indonesia — While President Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, have eased tensions between their countries, they are vying for influence in Asia and beyond, offering competing stances on how to address poverty and the war in Ukraine.
Mr. Xi has cast China as a steadfast partner to the region, rejecting what he described as the United States’ “Cold War mentality” of forming security alliances. At the Group of 20 summit on Tuesday, he spoke loftily about China’s “global initiatives” to fight poverty and strife, while remaining publicly vague about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and President Vladimir V. Putin’s nuclear saber rattling.
“Drawing ideological lines or promoting group politics and bloc confrontation will only divide the world, and hinder global development and human progress,” Mr. Xi told the opening session of the G20 meeting in Bali, Indonesia.
President Biden unveiled fresh steps by rich Western countries promising hundreds of billions of dollars to build infrastructure in poor countries, an effort widely seen as a counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and he met with leaders from Italy and Turkey to shore up support for Ukraine.
The agendas of China and the United States at the summit, a gathering of the world’s biggest economies, showed how both powers are courting other nations with dueling priorities and spending programs. That rivalry can sometimes benefit middle powers — like Indonesia, the host country — by generating competition to provide aid and support, but it can also leave them fearful of being squeezed between the jostling giants.
“This grouping is not interested in choosing sides,” said Courtney J. Fung, an associate fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia, referring to Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia. “They would rather that these two states figure it out so that they don’t get crushed in the middle.”
For Mr. Xi, his trip to Indonesia was his first in-person appearance at a major global gathering outside China in recent years. His first trip abroad since the pandemic took hold was to Uzbekistan in September. His power bolstered by a Chinese Communist Party congress that last month extended his rule for another five years, Mr. Xi appears poised to recharge China’s diplomacy. He has said he wants China to more vigorously promote its solutions to the world’s problems.
But Mr. Xi’s reluctance to take a clearer stance on Ukraine, or to wade into the complicated task of seeking to stop the war, also showed the limits China faces should it seek to displace the United States as a global power broker, Ms. Fung said.
Mr. Xi used the global platform of the G20 to promote a so-called Global Security Initiative, a vague proposal begun earlier this year to offer China’s solutions to international conflict and threats. The idea appears to be at least partly driven by the Chinese government’s sensitivity to criticisms that it failed to stand by its declared reverence for sovereignty when Russia invaded Ukraine.
So far, the proposal was “an upgrade in China saying ‘I don’t like what the Americans have done,’ but it’s not entirely clear to me what Beijing is offering,” Ms. Fung said. “It’s still unclear to me what better answers they can offer to difficult questions.”
Mr. Biden, on the other hand, has been eager to reinforce the United States’ traditional leadership, saying on Monday that the United States is more “prepared than any country in the world, economically and politically, to deal with the changing circumstances around the world.”
He held meetings with Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s new prime minister, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey on Tuesday, seeking to secure their cooperation as Ukraine fights to take back territory seized by Russian forces.
Officials in Washington were optimistic that the summit was an opportunity for other leaders to show Mr. Xi that they are aligned in their thinking. When President Emmanuel Macron of France met with Mr. Xi on Tuesday, he urged their two countries to work together to stop the war in Ukraine.
At the summit, other leaders expressed growing concerns about the escalating risk of conflict in the world.
“We should not divide the world into parts,” President Joko Widodo of Indonesia said in his opening speech to the meeting in Bali, a tropical resort island. “We must not allow the world to fall into another world war.”
On Monday, Mr. Xi and Mr. Biden sought to assuage such fears, meeting for nearly three hours and promising to rein in tensions that had caused ties between China and the United States to spiral to their lowest in decades. The message resonated in Southeast Asia, which for decades had counted on a stable relationship between China and the United States to preserve its prosperity. In recent months, senior officials have expressed alarm about the deterioration in ties between the powers. Many said they were relieved by the outcome of Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi’s meeting.
“I would not use the word reset, but I hope it sets a floor to how low the relationship can fall,” said Chan Heng Chee, the ambassador at large with Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She urged “both powers to bear in mind” that “we really do not want to be collateral damage.”
Still, Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi acknowledged that the United States and China would keep competing, and each has used the G20 and a cluster of related regional meetings to repair or strengthen ties.
China’s renewed emphasis on international outreach reflects the deterioration of the country’s image in many wealthy countries in recent years. It also underscores Beijing’s interest in shoring up its ties with nations across Asia and Africa, while trying to repair relations with Western Europe, which have been hurt by China’s closeness with Russia.
Mr. Xi has already shown how he hopes to regain some of that lost diplomatic ground. Early this month, he hosted the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, in Beijing. During his meeting in Bali on Tuesday with Mr. Macron, the Chinese leader continued trying to coax Europe a little closer to Beijing.
“As two major forces in the world’s multipolar array, China and France — and China and Europe — should hold to a spirit of independence and autonomy, openness and cooperation,” Mr. Xi said, according to the Chinese summary of their talks, using phrases that Beijing uses to prod Europe to avoid aligning with Washington.
In another sign of China’s interest in improving its standing in the region, Mr. Xi also held talks with the Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese, ending Beijing’s freeze on top-level contacts between the two countries after a series of disagreements.
If there is one region in the world where Mr. Xi’s soaring promises may find an interested audience, it is Southeast Asia, which has felt China’s rise more inexorably than any other. Beijing has spent billions of dollars to build high-speed trains, bridges, dams, and highways in places like Indonesia and the Philippines.
Even so, many there hope Washington stays involved.
“Unlike the United States, China is not ever going to withdraw to the other side of the Pacific,” Evelyn Goh, a professor of strategic policy studies at the Australian National University in Canberra, said. “But there is still a very strong preference that it would be great if the United States could remain forward positioned in the region.”
After years of being largely forgotten by the Obama administration and then ignored by the Trump government, many in Southeast Asia say they welcome the renewed attention from the Biden administration. Top officials have made multiple trips to the region, and the Biden administration has offered the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework as a counter to China’s influence. But it stopped short of offering market access to the United States, which has disappointed many in Southeast Asia.
In Indonesia, which has tilted closer to China in recent years, Beijing’s investment is welcome. In an interview, Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s coordinating minister of maritime and investment affairs, said Premier Li Keqiang of China was happy to comply with his conditions on Chinese investment in Indonesia. Those included promising that Indonesia would not take on government debt and that the Chinese would provide technology transfer, among others.
“They never, ever dictate,” Mr. Luhut said.
In contrast, Mr. Luhut said, the United States often comes with a list of onerous requirements for Indonesia to fulfill before any investment is approved. “I told Washington about this: ‘The way you deal with us, forget it,” he said. “I can go anywhere, but don’t blame us.”
Jim Tankersley contributed reporting.