President Joe Biden arrives in Washington on Wednesday evening after a whirlwind slate of summits across two different continents – his largest opportunity yet to play diplomat-in-chief among other world leaders in a world reemerging from the Covid-19 pandemic.
The trip – spanning Egypt, Cambodia and Indonesia for summits focused on climate, Southeast Asia and the global economy – came at a tricky moment, challenging the president to balance his attention on both ongoing domestic political battles and the international matters in front of him.
Biden, for instance, would be thousands of miles away from Washington as votes continued to be tabulated in midterm races across the country. He would be in Indonesia while his 2020 competitor and predecessor, former President Donald Trump, announced his third run for the presidency in Florida. And through it all, Biden would try to thread the needle of diplomacy with allies and adversaries who might not know if his brand of foreign policy would stick around for the long term.
But flying away from Asia on Wednesday, the president departed having been able to celebrate some political victories while abroad, smooth over some of the pricklier dynamics he’d faced with key leaders without promising any deliverables and test the mettle of his alliances when an emergency called on them to come together and hatch a plan.
Here are takeaways from Biden’s trip:
Cooling tensions with China
Biden held three-hour talks on the sidelines of the G20 in Bali on Monday with Chinese President Xi Jinping, their first in-person meeting since Biden took office. The meeting was a chance to smooth over longstanding tensions. Though the two leaders left without resolving the litany of issues that have helped drive the US-China relationship to its lowest point in decades, they committed to reestablishing coordination.
Relations have deteriorated rapidly amid economic disputes and an increasingly militarized standoff over Taiwan. The tensions have led to a decline in cooperation on areas where the two countries once shared common interests, like combating climate change and containing North Korea’s nuclear program.
Emerging from the talks afterward, Biden told reporters that both he and Xi were “open and candid” about their disagreements. And importantly, Biden cast doubt on an imminent invasion of self-governing Taiwan, and seemed hopeful his message about avoiding all-out conflict was received.
“I’m not suggesting this is kumbaya,” Biden said at a news conference, “but I do not believe there’s a need for concern, as one of you raised a legitimate question, a new Cold War.”
“He was clear, and I was clear that we will defend American interests and values, promote universal human rights and stand up for the international order and work in lockstep with our allies and partners,” Biden continued. “We’re going to compete vigorously but I’m not looking for conflict.”
The White House said in a statement after the meeting that Biden raised concerns about human rights and China’s provocations around Taiwan. But they found at least one area of apparent agreement – that nuclear weapons cannot be used in Ukraine, where that nation is trying to fight off a Russian invasion.
In a sign both men arrived to meeting hoping to improve the souring relationship, Biden announced his Secretary of State Antony Blinken would visit China and said officials from each country would begin working together through issues. Formal talks on climate cooperation between the US and China are expected to resume as well as part of a broader set of agreements between Biden and Xi, two US officials tell CNN.
China previously halted talks – viewed by the Biden administration as a key area where the two nations must work together – as part of retaliation for the visit to Taiwan by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The US and Chinese envoys for climate change are talking, but the Biden administration will see what China is prepared to do to make concrete progress, one of the US officials said.
A midterms boost and Trump’s presidential announcement
The White House had prepared for domestic politics to loom over the trip given Trump’s expected announcement and the lag in midterm elections results. The issue, it seems, also hovered in the minds of leaders Biden met with throughout the trip.
Biden brought up the political headwinds working in his favor at the top of Monday’s news conference, after it was projected that Democrats would secure their majority in the US Senate.
“The American people proved once again that democracy is who we are. There was a strong rejection of election deniers at every level from those seeking to lead our states and those seeking to serve in Congress and also those seeking to oversee the elections,” Biden said.
Speaking of his time in Asia and meeting with world leaders, Biden said the election has sent “a very strong message around the world that the United States is ready to play” and “fully engaged in the world.”
Throughout the course of his meetings in Asia, Biden was approached by fellow leaders bearing congratulations following the midterm results, a signal the American political contests were being closely monitored by leaders on the opposite side of the world. It was a phenomenon that surprised some of his aides, particularly the specificity with which many of the leaders were watching.
White House officials were also anticipating a split screen moment this week as Biden met world leaders in Bali at the same moment his predecessor was announcing a third presidential run. But the dynamic was amplified as Biden convened the emergency talks over a missile killing two people in Poland at the same hour Trump loyalists filled the Mar-a-Lago ballroom for the former president’s announcement.
Trump’s announcement will surely prompt renewed attention on Biden’s on decision-making on running for reelection. By all accounts, including from his closest advisers, Biden will feel more propelled to seek a second term if Trump is in contention.
Uniting allies around Ukraine and acting quickly on Poland
Biden administration officials had billed the G20 summit as another effort to rally world leaders in support of Ukraine amid Russia’s ongoing aggression, but the issue reached a new level of urgency when leaders in Indonesia were awoken early Wednesday to reports that a missile had landed in Poland – Ukraine’s neighbor to the west and a NATO ally – and killed two people.
NATO and G7 allied leaders at the summit, led by Biden, held and emergency meeting in Bali to discuss their approach to the explosion.
The circumstances surrounding the incident, which marked the first time a NATO country had been directly hit during the almost nine-month conflict, remain unclear.
Biden said after the meeting that preliminary information suggested it was “unlikely” the missile was fired from within Russia, but was unable to say conclusively until the investigation was complete. Poland’s president and the head of NATO have both said Wednesday that it’s likely that the missile strike was accidentally caused by Ukrainian air defenses, with no sign that it was a intentional attack on Poland.
At the G20 – a group of nations, including Russia, broadly focused on the global economy – Russia’s international isolation grew as world leaders issued a joint declaration condemning its war in Ukraine.
The summit concluded Wednesday with a leaders’ statement that “deplores in the strongest terms the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine and demands its complete and unconditional withdrawal from the territory of Ukraine.”
The 17-page document is a major victory for the US and its allies who have pushed to end the summit with a strong condemnation of Russia, though it also acknowledged disagreements among member states.
“Most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine and stressed it is causing immense human suffering and exacerbating existing fragilities in the global economy,” it said. “There were other views and different assessments of the situation and sanctions.”
The passing of the joint declaration would have required the buy-in from leaders that share close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin – most notably Xi, who declared a “no-limits” friendship between their countries weeks before the invasion, and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
While India is seen to have distanced itself from Russia, whether there has been any shift of position from China is less clear. Xi has called for a ceasefire and agreed to oppose the use of nuclear weapons in a flurry of bilateral meetings with Western leaders on the sidelines of the G20, but he has given no public indication of any commitment to persuade Putin to end the war.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak, MJ Lee, Allie Malloy, Nectar Gan and Rhea Mogul contributed to this report.