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Biden & Xi Meet in Bali; Could This Help Cool U.S.-China Tensions & Reduce Risk of a Military Clash?

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For the first time since taking office, President Biden met in person with Chinese President Xi Jinping Monday in Bali, Indonesia. We discuss how the meeting might affect rising tensions over Taiwan, where Nancy Pelosi visited earlier this year, and concerns over China’s human rights violations. The goals of the meeting should be “for the two leaders to find a way to cool those tensions down and to find ways to reduce the risk of a military clash arising in the Pacific,” says Michael Klare, defense correspondent at The Nation. As Chinese military drills near Taiwan threaten instability in the region, “the question is what’s the best way to deter China from doing anything,” says Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from the U.N. climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

Meanwhile, President Biden met with President Xi Jinping of China in Bali, Indonesia, today for their first in-person talks since Biden took office. The meeting took place ahead of the G20 summit and amidst increasing tensions between the two countries over Taiwan, the war in Ukraine and trade. The two leaders were also expected to discuss the climate crisis and North Korea.

President Biden spoke earlier today, prior to the meeting.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: As the leaders of our two nations, we share a responsibility, in my view, to show that China and the United States can manage our differences, prevent competition from becoming anything ever near conflict, and to find ways to work together on urgent global issues that require our mutual cooperation. And I believe this is critical for the sake of our two countries and the international community. This was a key to the theme of the COP27 meeting, where I spoke on Friday. And we’ll be discussing a lot of these challenges together, I hope, in the next couple hours.

AMY GOODMAN: The Chinese President Xi Jinping also spoke in Bali, Indonesia, before meeting with President Biden, their first meeting since President Biden became president.

PRESIDENT XI JINPING: [translated] The world has come to a crossroads. Where to go from here? This is a question that is not only on our minds, but also on the minds of all the countries. The world expects that China and the United States will properly handle the relationship. Our meeting has attracted the world’s attention. So we need to work with all the countries to bring more hope to world peace, greater confidence to global stability, and a stronger impetus to common development.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by two guests. Michael Klare is co-founder of the Committee for a Sane U.S.-China Policy, professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College. He’s also The Nation magazine’s defense correspondent. And we’re joined by Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, previously the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley, and has been reporting on China since 1970.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Orville Schell, let’s begin with you. The significance of today’s summit, and what you think needs to be accomplished?

ORVILLE SCHELL: It’s certainly long overdue that Biden and Xi Jinping personally get together. They’ve had five talks virtually, but they’ve not actually sat down. And I think, in a curious way, Biden is precisely the right person to try to thaw out Xi Jinping. He’s been on two trips with him in the past — one in China; he hosted him as vice president here in the United States — so that insofar as it’s possible to know Xi Jinping, Biden does know him. And he’s a glad-handing, very avuncular sort of open person. So I think there is some hope there.

But, of course, we have two countries with very, very different political systems. And China has become much more autocratic, much more hectoring and bullying other countries around the world, much more aggressive and bellicose. And they think this is their moment. They have attained sufficient wealth and power to gain not only a voice in the world but to begin to set the rules of the game. So there’s an awful lot of contentiousness and an awful lot of disagreement, and one wonders just how far they can get. But if they can lower the temperature a little, that is something in its own right.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Klare, what you think needs to happen right now? I mean, it was not clear this meeting, face-to-face meeting, was even going to happen, but it did. And what you feel both China and the U.S. have to give at this point? What needs to happen in the world?

MICHAEL KLARE: So, let’s look at the backdrop to this meeting. Coming into the meeting, tensions between the U.S. and China were at their worst level in decades, a very high level of tension over Taiwan in particular. Since Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August, China has stepped up its military activities around Taiwan. At the same time, the U.S. has increased its own military pressures against China by concluding military deals with Australia and building up its military alliances with South Korea and Japan. By the way, Biden met with the leaders of those two countries while he was in Cambodia on the way from Sharm el-Sheikh to Bali. So, there’s been an increase in military tensions in the Pacific, which, you know, in my mind, if they continued on the course they were on, would lead to a military clash sooner or later.

So, what has to happen at this meeting, Amy, is for the two leaders to find a way to cool those tensions down and to find ways to reduce the risk of a military clash arising in the Pacific, either over Taiwan or in the South China Sea. And in the clips that you played just a few minutes ago, you could see both of them stressing the need to manage tensions, to avoid conflict. That’s really what this summit is all about.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Orville Schell, you take a different view of, for example, Michael Klare, very critical of Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan. If Republicans take the House, by however narrow a margin, it’s pretty clear Kevin McCarthy, if he is the House speaker, would also head to Taiwan. You were recently in Taiwan. Your thoughts on the Pelosi visit and the U.S. approach to Taiwan right now? It was also clear that the Biden administration was not completely supportive of Pelosi going.

ORVILLE SCHELL: No, I think the Biden administration was very wary about sticking unnecessary fingers in the eyes of Xi Jinping in China. On the other hand, in fairness to Nancy Pelosi, I think she got kind of trapped by circumstances. Her original intention was — she had not announced she was just going to Taiwan, just that she was going to Asia, and the FT leaked the story. So then she got stuck with the fact that China had advance warning. Her original intention was just to slide in, spend, you know, 24 hours and leave, and not be as provocative as it had ended up being.

However, I have to say, having been in Taiwan right after her trip, I think it had a certain utility. As Michael Klare noted, there’s enormous tension in the Taiwan Straits, and Xi Jinping has been incredibly bellicose and has not eschewed using military force to retake Taiwan, which he claims is part of China. And I think Nancy Pelosi’s trip did help wake up not only people in Taiwan, who are used to the status quo, to make them begin to recognize that there is a real threat on the horizon, and they’re going to have to mobilize themselves against it to be a deterrent, if they expect to prevent it from happening, but also I think her trip helped wake up the world about — in terms of what China actually has in mind for Taiwan. They had seven live-fire zones all around the island shooting missiles over the island into Japan’s waters. So, I mean, this is no joke. Xi Jinping is a very aggressive man. And the Taiwan Straits is a very dangerous zone. And the question is: What’s the best way to deter China from doing anything?

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Klare, maybe you can take that question.

MICHAEL KLARE: Well, I think Orville raised some of the difficulties we face. Certainly, Xi Jinping and the Chinese have made very threatening comments regarding Taiwan. But that’s only half of the picture. The other half is: What has the United States done to increase tensions in the Taiwan Strait? And if you look at what the Biden administration has been doing, it has been suggesting that Taiwan should become part of the U.S. military alliance, joining Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, in the Quad, so-called, as part of a chain of islands and states surrounding China and trying to throttle its rise. Now, that may not be the way it’s framed in U.S. government statements, but that’s certainly the way it looks to China. So, from the Chinese point of view, it’s the U.S. that’s the aggressor. I’m not saying necessarily that that’s the master plan in Washington, but that’s the way it looks. So, just as Orville says that the Chinese, to us, appear very bellicose and threatening, that’s a question of perception on both sides.

So, what has to happen is for both sides to lay out what their real intentions are, try to dispel any misconceptions and to try to find a peaceful path forward for Taiwan. If the U.S. says that Taiwan is going to be part of the U.S. alliance system, which the Biden administration has said, that is going to provoke a conflict, which could lead to World War III. Same thing if China invades. So, we’re really in a dangerous situation here.

AMY GOODMAN: And speaking of war, the war in Ukraine and the position Xi Jinping is taking, I mean, it’s very interesting that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, did not attend the G20 summit. Many felt it was because he didn’t feel he would have enough support from Xi. Your thoughts on this, Orville Schell?

ORVILLE SCHELL: I think there’s a great question mark hanging over exactly what Vladimir Putin told Xi Jinping at the Winter Olympics, whether he actually told him what he had in mind. I suspect he thought that he could get in, take Kyiv in a short period of time, and he told Xi Jinping, “Listen, we have to do this. This is our territory. Don’t worry, it will be over quickly.” And, of course, that hasn’t proven true.

I would disagree with Michael Klare about — you know, it’s not a 50-50 matter in the Taiwan Straits, that the U.S. and China are both sort of provoking each other equally. China has not issued the use of force to retake Taiwan and reintegrate it in the motherland. And, you know, the United States rejects that. But it has not threatened to make China a treaty ally or put it into the Quad or in the AUKUS or anything like that. But it is — does, by congressional act, is committed to provide it with adequate self-defense. And it seems completely legitimate, that only 2% of the Taiwanese people want to be part of the Chinese mainland. And that is a reality. And it is an open society, a free society and a democratic society. And China is not. And therein lies the contentiousness. That is the contradiction, and that it’s not one that Biden can solve, even by a summit in Bali.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Michael Klare, if you could respond to that? And also, in looking at the readout — I just want to let our viewers and listeners know that as we broadcast, the news conference that President Biden is holding after the Biden-Xi meeting is just taking place right now. But from that readout, the concern has been raised about — the readout from the White House: President Biden raised concerns about China’s practices in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, and human rights more broadly. Your response, as we begin to wrap up this discussion, Michael?

MICHAEL KLARE: I’m sure Orville and I both agree that the human rights situation in China is atrocious, and that this should be, you know, raised wherever possible. We should also mention that there’s been a huge increase in attacks on Asian Americans in the United States. And I attribute both of them — that is, the horrendous conditions in both countries — to the intensification of these Cold War tensions that we’ve been discussing, Amy. And so, one hopes that the meeting in Bali will lead to a lowering of hostilities between China and the United States, and that might make it possible to address the human rights situation in China without it being overlaid with the U.S.-China tensions making it worse, and that conditions in this country against Asians will improve.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Orville Schell, your final thoughts on this issue of human rights in China?

ORVILLE SCHELL: Well, my final thought is that the United States, since 1972, has spent — has, during nine presidential U.S. administrations, sought to make a policy of engagement, which was to accept China, embrace China, bring it into the world system. And it was actually Xi Jinping who put a stake through the heart of engagement. So we are now in a state of estrangement and increasingly more hostile relationship. It is with some great, I think, regret that we look back on the period where we tried to sort of bend the metal of Leninism and autocracy in China by slowly integrating China into the world system. It didn’t work. And now we’re confronting a much more antagonistic situation, and we don’t know where it’s going to lead. And I think it’s going to be very difficult even for a summit —

AMY GOODMAN: Orville Schell, we want to thank you for being with us. We’re going to have to carry this discussion on another time. But Orville Schell is director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, previously was dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at University of California, Berkeley, has been reporting on China since 1970. And Michael Klare, defense correspondent for The Nation, professor emeritus of Hampshire College.

This is Democracy Now! Back here at COP27, we’re going to look at where we are in Egypt with Ahmed El Droubi, Greenpeace’s regional campaign manager for the Middle East and North Africa, in 30 seconds.

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