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As Biden and Xi meet in Bali, rest of Asia watches closely, too

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

President Biden and China's leader, Xi Jinping, sat down for three hours today on the sidelines of the G-20 meeting in Indonesia. Biden later told reporters he doesn't want tensions over Taiwan to lead to even more strained relations between the world's two largest economies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I absolutely believe there's need to be a new cold war. We - I've met many times with Xi Jinping, and we were candid and clear with one another across the board. And I do not think there's any imminent attempt on the part of China to invade Taiwan. And I made it clear that our policy on Taiwan has not changed at all.

FADEL: The White House says Biden did object to increasingly aggressive actions toward Taiwan and raised human rights concerns regarding Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong. Beijing, for its part, says both sides need to tackle what officials there call unprecedented challenges. To give us a broader regional perspective, let's bring in Anthony Kuhn, who covers Northeast Asia from Seoul, and NPR's China correspondent, John Ruwitch from Shanghai. Welcome to you both.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Morning, Leila.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So, John, I want to start with you. The two leaders exchanged warm words before they sat down today. But the China-U.S. relationship is in bad shape. U.S. officials, including President Biden, have said they want to put a floor under the relationship, keeping it from veering into conflict. And that - it seems like a pretty low bar to set for this meeting.

RUWITCH: Right. Yeah. Look, officials on both sides are pretty hopeful that this face-to-face meeting can be a game changer...

FADEL: OK.

RUWITCH: ...Or at least move the ball a little bit. Xi Jinping and Joe Biden have known each other for about 11 years. They've spent a lot of time together, had a lot of talks. And Biden said the other day, there is no misunderstanding between them. But, you know, they've had five calls or video conferences since Biden became president, and their relationship just keeps getting worse. So everyone's keeping their expectations in check.

U.S. officials say there aren't going to be any deliverables. There's not going to be a joint statement out of this meeting. And a senior administration official said success isn't about common ground; it's about figuring out ways to communicate more, which, as you say, is a low bar. I mean, these are two nuclear-armed superpowers, right?

FADEL: Right.

RUWITCH: On the way into the meeting, Xi Jinping did say that they need to chart the right course and find the right direction. The devil is going to be in the details, though.

FADEL: Anthony, I want to turn to you now. Biden has said repeatedly he wants to work with allies in the region. So have Seoul and Tokyo taken a clear side with the U.S.? Or are they still hedging, sitting on the fence between the U.S. and China?

KUHN: Well, both these allies insist that they share the U.S.'s values, but I think their interests are somewhat different. To both of them, China is both their neighbor and their biggest trading partner. Both are under increasing pressure to pick a side in this U.S.-China rivalry. And that's tough because for decades they've relied on the U.S. for security and China for trade. That strategy serves them well. And I think, like most countries in Northeast and Southeast Asia, they don't really want to have to choose. And at a regional summit in Cambodia over the weekend, Indonesian President Joko Widodo put this idea in a nutshell when he said that Asia must not become an arena for a new Cold War.

So both Seoul and Tokyo are trying to stabilize their ties with Beijing. The U.S. would love to have them both in a trilateral alliance to deal with China. And there has been movement in that direction, including recent three-way military exercises. But there's still historical mistrust between South Korea and Japan. So although what the U.S. wants is a trilateral alliance, what it really has is two bilateral alliances.

FADEL: OK, John. So you're watching this from inside China. Is the fact that it's only two bilateral relationships a good thing from China's perspective?

RUWITCH: Yeah, sure. China obviously doesn't want to be confronted by a three-way alliance. It doesn't want any alliances against it.

FADEL: Yeah.

RUWITCH: And it's warned South Korea and Japan not to - you know, not to take aim at China. But the geopolitics of the region are changing, and it's being driven, to some extent, by this broader competition between the U.S. and China. I mean, take Taiwan, for example. It is a core issue for China, but it's really moved up in prominence as an issue that a range of countries that weren't talking about it much before are now expressing concern about. Japan - Japan's relationship with Taipei has grown a lot closer in recent years. Officials are talking about the need to help Taiwan defend itself. That's a big change.

So, you know, the pressure to pick sides that Anthony is talking about is sort of a pillar of U.S.-China policy. It's the aligning piece of the puzzle, where, you know, they want to align - line up policies with and coordinate with other, you know, allies against China. Beijing is redoubling its own efforts to push back so these alliances don't gel.

FADEL: OK, Anthony. Well, we've got to talk about North Korea. The administration yesterday said Pyongyang's path could prompt bigger U.S. military presence in the region. In a way, it's also a veiled threat to Beijing, isn't it?

KUHN: Yeah, a very thinly veiled threat. And it's not exactly clear what the U.S. might do. It has promised to rotate more aircraft carriers, submarines and strategic bombers to the Korean Peninsula as a way to reassure South Korea. It says it will not redeploy tactical nuclear weapons, which they took out of South Korea in 1992. It could deploy more missile defense systems there to protect South Korea. But the last time they did that, five years ago, China unleashed massive economic retaliation against South Korea.

I think the bigger question is, is there anything the U.S. can do or say, given the state of ties between Beijing and Washington, to get China to lean on North Korea to rein in its nuclear and missile testing? I think, John, you're in a position to address that better than I. What do you think?

RUWITCH: Yeah. I mean, in public, of course, you have China - the government here says that it wants the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But Beijing's a key partner of North Korea. And it's always been loathe to use really overt pressure on North Korea. And, you know, given the tense state of relations with the U.S., they may be less inclined to do so now.

In May, China, along with Russia, for the first time vetoed a U.N. resolution after North Korean missile tests. Just last month, Xi Jinping exchanged letters with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, which, according to official media, was - you know, they supported each other. China blames the United States to some extent for the tensions on the Korean Peninsula. It says the U.S. needs to address North Korea's legitimate security concerns. So it's hard to imagine China doing much at this stage to advance the issue. But we'll really have to see, you know, if and how the U.S. follows through in boosting its military presence in the region.

FADEL: All right. John Ruwitch in China and Anthony Kuhn in South Korea.

Thank you both.

RUWITCH: You're welcome.

KUHN: Thanks, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.