U.S. views on China’s Xi darken

China, in the words of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, has become ‘more repressive at home’ and ‘more aggressive abroad.’

NUSA DUA, Indonesia (AFP) — Sitting next to Xi Jinping during one of their marathon sessions in 2011, Joe Biden saluted the direction of US-China ties.

“The trajectory of the relationship is nothing but positive,” Biden told businesspeople who came to see the two vice presidents at a Beijing hotel, voicing “great optimism about the next 30 years.”

As the two leaders, now presidents, prepare to meet again a little more than a decade into that timeframe, the trajectory of relations is anything but positive — and virtually no US policymaker is optimistic about Xi, China’s most powerful leader in decades who just secured a historic third term.

Biden and Xi will hold talks Monday on the sidelines of a Group of 20 Summit in Bali at a time of rising US alarm.

Xi’s China, in the words of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, has become “more repressive at home” and “more aggressive abroad” — with the threat of China invading Taiwan, once largely theoretical, increasingly seen as real.

First since 2019

It will be the first in-person meeting between the US and Chinese presidents since Donald Trump spoke in 2019 with Xi, who only recently resumed international travel following the pandemic.

But Biden and Xi know each other unusually well for two world leaders. They have talked by phone or videoconference five times since the Democrat entered the White House in 2021.

And the relationship goes much deeper.

When Xi was a leader in waiting, Biden flew to China in 2011 and later invited him to tour the United States including rural Iowa, where a young Xi had gone on an exchange.

Biden said that as vice president he spent 67 hours in person with Xi, part of an effort by the then administration of Barack Obama at least to understand, if not court, the rising Chinese leader.

US officials and experts have since come to believe that the 69-year-old Xi has no desire for moderation, with the new Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party stacked with hardliners and lacking any obvious heir apparent.

Total control

“We all knew that Xi Jinping was going to prevail. But I think people are still surprised that Xi Jinping could not even find the grace to save some accommodation for his political opponents,” said Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington.

With the Party Congress over, Xi now has greater space and flexibility to focus on his international push for a stronger China, she said.

“We are not looking at a Xi Jinping who is going to be less emboldened,” she said.

Both Biden and Trump have identified China as the preeminent global competitor to the United States. But while Trump by late in his term was railing against China on everything from trade to Covid-19, Biden has supported talks on narrow areas of cooperation.

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