In First Phone Call, Biden and Xi Hash Out Differences, Set Stage for “Extreme Competition”

On February 10, newly elected President Joe Biden spoke with Chinese leader Xi Jinping for the first time in office. The Biden White House and China’s Xinhua News both provided readouts of the call. Human rights appeared to be a central issue in their conversation as Biden expressed “fundamental concerns” about the “crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and increasingly assertive actions in the region, including toward Taiwan.” Xinhua’s readout curtly claimed those issues to be China’s internal affairs. The two leaders also spoke about climate change, security policy, and global public health. At The Washington Post, Gerry Shih wrote that the call underscored the gulf between the United States and China on human rights issues, portending future turbulence:

China’s stern warning about Taiwan, a U.S.-backed, self-ruled democracy that China claims as its territory, has been a consistent message going back to the latter months of the Trump administration, when bilateral relations entered a free fall, according to Chinese analysts and U.S. scholars and business executives who speak with Chinese officials. Aside from seeking assurances that U.S. policy toward Taiwan would not change dramatically, these people say, China has low expectations that the new president will quickly adopt a much softer approach to China and offer changes that Beijing seeks, such as dropping President Donald Trump’s tariffs or his technology sanctions.

Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated China’s crackdown on the region’s mostly Muslim population in Xinjiang as “” in the final days of the Trump administration, enraging Beijing, and lifted State Department restrictions on interactions with Taiwanese officials. His successor, Antony Blinken, concurred with the genocide designation and has spoken forcefully in favor of supporting Taiwan. Biden national security adviser Jake Sullivan has also publicly recommended the United States be prepared to “impose costs” on China for its crackdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and for its “bellicosity and threats” toward Taiwan.

[…] China has been eager to restart dialogue and has waited for a call since the Jan. 20 inauguration. Officials had informally floated the idea of sending China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, to Washington even earlier to meet with Biden officials, according to people with knowledge of the discussions. But the U.S. response was chilly as Biden and senior officials such as Blinken first spoke to U.S. allies and friends, including Canada, Britain, Japan, Australia and India, on calls that often touched on the Indo-Pacific region and China. [Source]

The call came just three days after the February 7 airing of an interview in which Biden told CBS’ Norah O’Donnell that his administration’s China policy will be geared towards “extreme competition” and shared his appraisal of Xi Jinping:

NORAH O’DONNELL (CBS EVENING NEWS): The U.S.-China relationship is probably one of the most important in the entire world. Why haven’t you called Xi Jinping?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN (CBS EVENING NEWS): Well, we haven’t had occasion to– to talk to one another yet. There’s no reason not to call him. I probably spent more time with Xi Jinping, I’m told, than any world leader has because I– I had twenty-four, twenty-five hours of private meetings with him when I was vice president, traveled seventeen thousand miles with him. I know him pretty well.

NORAH O’DONNELL (CBS EVENING NEWS): There is a lot to talk about?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN (CBS EVENING NEWS): A lot to talk about, a whole lot to talk about. And he’s very bright. He’s very tough. He doesn’t have– and I don’t mean this is a criticism, just the reality, he doesn’t have a democratic, small D, bone in his body. But he is– the question is I’ve said to him all along that we need not have a– a conflict. But there’s going to be extreme competition. And I’m not going to do it the way that he knows and that’s because he’s sending signals as well. And I’m not going to do it the way Trump did. We’re going to focus on international rules of the road. [Source]

Readouts of the call provided by both stressed that climate change was a potential area of future cooperation. In September 2020, Xi Jinping unexpectedly pledged that China will become carbon neutral before 2060. Climate policy was a key plank in Biden’s campaign platform. He has called for the elimination of fossil fuel-driven pollution in the American economy by 2050. John Kerry, Biden’s special climate envoy, and Xie Zhenhua, his Chinese counterpart and a key negotiator in the Paris Climate accords, have a long-standing working relationship. Yet in his Chaguan column for The Economist, David Rennie warned that despite warm overtures, true cooperation on climate change issues is not a given:

Optimists see signs in China of high-level pragmatism in the return from semi-retirement of Xie Zhenhua. He is a well-connected climate negotiator who brokered the burden-sharing agreements between China and the Obama administration that made possible the climate accords in 2015. Mr Xie, China’s new climate envoy, has known his American counterpart, John Kerry, for years. Gloomier sorts worry about the distrust and disdain shown by other Chinese officials and scholars who call America a jealous, declining power, bent on containing a rising China. Talks on such subjects as climate cannot prosper when bilateral relations are bad, said a foreign-ministry spokesman, after Mr Kerry promised that he would not trade away American criticisms of Chinese trade or human-rights abuses for climate-related concessions. Chinese co-operation is not like “flowers that can bloom in a greenhouse despite winter chill”, the spokesman sniffed.

China’s ambitions are disruptive because they are newly credible. They are credible, not because it has been converted to selfless acts of sacrifice, but precisely the opposite. To Communist Party leaders, greenery increasingly aligns with their economic and political interests. China, a populous country that is cruelly lacking in clean water and arable farmland, and which hates having to rely so heavily on imported energy, has a selfish interest in embracing what President Xi Jinping calls “ecological civilisation”. Though the Chinese public is not very focused on climate change, citizens care deeply about clean air and water. They stage frequent demonstrations against pollution. In the words of a European diplomat, Mr Xi is convinced that “ecology is key to China’s renaissance and is part of the social contract between the Communist Party and the people.” China also wants to enhance its global reputation, the diplomat adds: “China cannot be Number One, which is of course its aspiration, without being a climate leader.”

[…] Obstacles loom. Other countries are wary of helping to strengthen China’s industrial policies. In order to sell climate-related measures to voters, Mr Biden talks of creating millions of well-paid jobs by making America an export champion in clean technologies. Li Shuo of Greenpeace, an environmental group, worries about calls to action that are framed as a competition to beat China in sectors like solar or wind power, where China “is so far ahead”. Mr Li thinks that China and America may have to settle for “climate engagement” as they pursue common goals in parallel. [Source]

A Global Times survey of Chinese international relations experts found them to be largely optimistic about the future, saying the call was an indication that “bilateral relations won’t deteriorate and spin out of .” Chinese organs praised the call. The editor of the Global Times, Hu Xijin, said, “The choice to talk on the eve of the Spring Festival is indicative of the goodwill and respect that Biden shows to Xi and China.” China Daily reported that Xi’s use of the word “possibilities” in his readout was a nod to a conversation the two had while Joe Biden was still Vice President:

In the phone call, Xi mentioned that Biden once told him what defines the United States is the country’s “possibilities”, referring to their talks during Biden’s trip to China a decade ago, when both were vice-presidents.

“When I was with Xi Jinping — and I was on the with him — and he asked me in a private dinner, he and I, and we each had an interpreter, he said, ‘Can you define America for me?'” Biden recounted during a swearing-in ceremony for new staffers, hours after his inauguration.

Biden, who was then vice-president in the Obama administration, said he responded to Xi, who was then vice-president: “possibilities”, CNN reported on Jan 22. [Source]

In the hours before his call with Xi, Biden travelled to the Pentagon, where he announced a new task force to review China’s military capabilities. During his trip, Biden stated that countering China would require “a whole-of-government effort, bipartisan cooperation in Congress, and strong alliances and partnerships[…] That’s how we’ll meet the China challenge and ensure the American people win the competition of the future.” At The Wall Street Journal, Bob Davis and Gordon Lubold reported on the new task force’s goals:

The Biden-Xi conversation came the same day that Mr. Biden launched a Pentagon review of the national security aspects of the administration’s China strategy, as part of a broader effort to determine its approach to countering Beijing.

[…] A China task force will study the military’s footprint in Asia, technology, intelligence, the role of allies and partnerships, and other areas of the strategy, administration officials said.

[…] For example, the review is expected to assess the need and frequency of surface and air patrols in the region to counter China’s maritime claims in the . Known as freedom of navigation patrols, they sometimes use Navy destroyers or Air Force bombers and are among the most high-profile ways for Washington to signal its displeasure with China’s actions in the region.[Source]

Biden and Xi’s call was preceded by a call between new Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi. The United States and China released starkly different transcripts of the call. In his China Watcher newsletter, David Wertime noted the differences between the two calls:

Secretary of State Tony Blinken and top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi also a had a call last Friday, widely understood as a precursor to the Biden-Xi call, although the readouts differed so widely that they seem to describe two different conversations, with Washington stressing the need to “hold the PRC accountable for its efforts to threaten stability in the Indo-Pacific” and Beijing “[urging] the United States to rectify its mistakes.” Viewed against that benchmark, Biden’s call on Wednesday was a mild improvement. [Source]

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