Launching his first face-to-face meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, President Joe Biden laid out neatly what he hopes to gain from the talks.
Boiled down, his goal is this: prevent the two countries from going to war.
“We share 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,” he said.
Preventing conflict may seem, on its surface, a rudimentary ambition for the world’s two largest economies and militaries. But at a moment when US-China relations are at their lowest level in decades, it is telling Biden and his team have stated so explicitly what they are trying to prevent.
Ahead of the talks, American officials repeatedly said their objective in meeting Xi was to “build a floor” for ties with Beijing, implying the relationship cannot spiral any further.
They did not expect any of the major differences with China to be resolved by the time the meeting breaks up Monday night. But they do hope by talking directly, the risk of a misunderstanding spiraling out of control is avoided.
US officials have watched with caution as China escalates its provocations around the self-governing island of Taiwan, and have looked for signals of Xi’s intentions.
So far, they have not seen indications Xi has decided to make a move on Taiwan, which Beijing claims as it own. But there is a growing consensus in Washington that it is not a matter of whether but when, and many analysts believe the timeline is shrinking.
It is in that context Biden was delivering his message to Xi, who himself has watched with anger as the US sends massive shipments of defensive weapons to Taiwan.
Explaining each others’ “red line” — what might trigger a military response — could be the most important information to emerge from Monday’s talks.