Biden Calls Xi To Set Up “Guardrails” On The Relationship

Frustrated by tepid progress in talks on trade, climate, and the South China Sea, among other issues, President Biden called President Xi Jinping for the first time in seven months last Thursday. It was only the second such call of Biden’s presidency, and comes after months of sometimes rancorous relations. At The New York Times, Zolan Kanno-Youngs and David E. Sanger reported on the Biden-Xi call:

The call, which a senior administration official said lasted 90 minutes, came at a particularly delicate time. Tensions are growing over Taiwan and the South China Sea, and Mr. Biden is trying to rally the West in what he calls a battle between “autocracy versus democracy.” It also came less than two weeks after the United States completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan, where China has been interested in mining for commodities.

Even as Mr. Biden’s senior officials stressed the importance of engaging directly with Mr. Xi after months of stalled discussions, administration officials on Thursday evening gave remarkably few details from the call. Mr. Biden did push China to agree to a set of guardrails for policymaking while also emphasizing the need to mitigate climate change, officials said.

[…] “The policies that the United States has adopted toward China for some period of time have pushed Chinese-U.S. relations into serious difficulties, and this is out of step with the fundamental interests of both countries’ peoples and the shared interests of every country in the world,” Mr. Xi said, according to a summary of the call issued online by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. “Whether China and the United States can properly handle mutual relations is a question for the century that concerns the fate of the world, and both countries must answer it.” [Source]

A U.S. official said the leaders were “familiar” and “candid” with one another. China Central Television, a state-run broadcaster, echoed that assessment, calling the discussion “candid and in-depth.”

A short White House readout said the call was part of an “effort to responsibly manage the competition between the United States and the PRC.” Relations between the two nations are at a low point in modern history. In March, senior Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi publicly lectured senior U.S. officials about democracy, racial violence, and hegemony. In August, major state and Party media outlets republished an essay accusing the United States of waging “biological warfare, cyber warfare, space warfare and public opinion battles against China.” Last week, climate envoy John Kerry was met with a cold shoulder in Tianjin, making little progress on negotiations ahead of the COP26 summit in November. At The Financial Times, Demetri Sevastopulo and Tom Mitchell reported that Biden called Xi to break the stalemate in negotiations caused by Xi’s centralization of power:

Biden requested the call after the White House concluded that Chinese officials who met their US counterparts this year were “unwilling to engage in serious or substantive conversations”, according to a senior US official.

“What we’ve gotten is the usual talking points, which are more designed for propaganda purposes,” the official said. “Xi has really centralised power in some pretty marked ways . . . engagement at the leader level is really what’s needed to move the ball forward.”

[…] “They have an ability to be candid and honest and frank with each other in a way that is not lecturing or in any way condescending . . . Both of them were honest about their views,” the official said. [Source]

Bloomberg News solicited views on the call from a top Chinese academic and the chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce:

“The summit itself is not important — what’s important is to observe whether relations have some remarkable improvement beyond weeks and months,” said Shi Yinhong, director of Renmin University’s Center on American Studies in Beijing who has served as an adviser to China’s State Council. “Any informed observer in this world is not optimistic.”

A face-to-face meeting is still a possibility on the sidelines of the Group of 20 meeting in Rome in late October, though it’s unclear if Xi will even go. He hasn’t left China since the scope of the pandemic became clear, the longest stay-at-home stint of any G-20 leader.

[…] “There’s grown a gap between the two countries and the relevant officials and how much they communicate, which right now is not a lot at all,” Greg Gilligan, AmCham’s China Chairman, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television on Friday. “If the two countries’ leaders get together and get that process going again, that would be a good thing.” [Source]

In contrast, China’s parallel diplomacy with Wall Street is progressing briskly, a dividend of Xi’s cultivation of American CEOs. John Thornton, a powerful voice on Wall Street, reportedly went to Beijing in August for meetings with economic czar Vice Premier Liu He in preparation for the resumption of the China-U.S. Financial Roundtable. BlackRock has opened new funds in China and recommended that U.S. investors triple their exposure to the country—despite a recent crackdown on some of China’s largest companies. Chinese diplomats have also assiduously fostered ties with other U.S. dignitaries. China’s new ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, met with Henry Kissinger in the hours before the Biden-Xi call:

Some industry leaders are rather more bearish. In the pages of The Wall Street Journal, George Soros said that the U.S. and China are in a “life and death conflict,” and that BlackRock “imperils the national security interests of the U.S.”


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