February 11, 2021
By David Brunnstrom, Alexandra Alper and Yew Lun Tian
WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping held their first telephone call as leaders and appeared at odds on most issues, even as Xi warned that confrontation would be a “disaster” for both nations.
While Xi has called for “win-win” cooperation, Biden has called China America’s “most serious competitor” and vowed to “out compete” Beijing.
On Thursday, Biden told a bipartisan group of U.S. senators at an Oval Office meeting to discuss the need to upgrade U.S. infrastructure that the United States must raise its game in the face of the Chinese challenge.
Biden said he spoke to Xi for two hours on Wednesday night and warned the senators: “If we don’t get moving, they are going to eat our lunch.”
“They’re investing billions of dollars dealing with a whole range of issues that relate to transportation, the environment and a whole range of other things. We just have to step up.”
The White House said Biden emphasized to Xi it was a U.S. priority to preserve a free and open Indo-Pacific, a region where the United States and China are major strategic rivals.
It said he voiced “fundamental” concerns about Beijing’s “coercive and unfair” trade practices, as well as about human rights issues, including China’s crackdown in Hong Kong and treatment Muslims in Xinjiang, and it increasingly assertive actions in Asia, including toward Taiwan.
All the rights issues the U.S. president mentioned were ones Beijing has explicitly told the Biden administration it should stay out of.
Xi told Biden confrontation would be a “disaster” and the two sides should re-establish the means to avoid misjudgments, the Chinese foreign ministry said.
Xi maintained a hardline tone regarding Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan, which he said were matters of “sovereignty and territorial integrity” that he hoped the United States would approach cautiously.
The call was the first between Chinese and U.S. leaders since Xi spoke with former President Donald Trump last March 27, nearly 11 months ago. Since then, relations between the world’s two biggest economies have plunged to their worst level in decades.
Trump blamed China for starting the COVID-19 pandemic and launched a series of actions against China, including a trade war, sanctions against Chinese officials and firms perceived to be security threats, while challenging Beijing’s extensive maritime claims in Asia.
Xi congratulated Biden on his election in a message in November, even though Biden had called him a “thug” during the campaign and vowed to lead an international effort to “pressure, isolate and punish China.”
OPEN LINE OF COMMUNICATION
The Biden administration has signaled it will maintain pressure on China, and has endorsed a Trump administration determination that China has committed genocide against Muslims in Xinjiang.
At the same time, it has pledged to take a more multilateral approach and is keen to cooperate with Beijing on issues such as climate change and persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
Biden has stressed the relationship he established with Xi when he was vice president under Barack Obama, through more than 24 hours of private meetings and 17,000 miles of travel together.
On Thursday, he said he had a good conversation with Xi and knew him well. However, a senior administration official told reporters ahead of the telephone call Biden would be “practical, hard-headed, clear-eyed” in dealings with the Chinese leader.
At the same time, the official said, Biden wanted to ensure they had the opportunity to have an open line of communication, despite U.S. concerns about Chinese behavior.
Chinese officials have expressed some optimism that bilateral relations will improve under Biden and urged Washington to meet Beijing halfway.
Both the U.S. and Chinese readouts of the call mentioned areas for potential cooperation, honing in on climate change and fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert with Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said there was room for cooperation, but differences were wide.
“The concerns highlighted by President Biden are in essence all Chinese core interests. So narrowing differences is going to be very challenging,” she said. “Xi did not suggest that there are preconditions for bilateral cooperation on issues such as climate change, so that is one positive takeaway.”
China’s foreign ministry said Xi had quoted back to Biden the U.S. president’s saying that “America can be defined in one word: Possibilities.”
“We hope the possibilities will now point toward an improvement of China-U.S. relations,” it quoted Xi as saying.
U.S. officials said the call came at a time when Washington believed it was in a position of strength, after consultations with allies and partners, to lay out its concerns about China’s “aggressive activities and abuses.”
They said the administration would look in coming months at adding “new targeted restrictions” on certain sensitive technology exports to China and also that there would be no quick moves to lift the tariffs the former Trump administration left in place against Chinese imports.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom, Michael Martina, Alexandra Alper and Tim Ahmann in Washington, and Yew Lun Tian in Beijing; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Taipei; writing by Se Young Lee and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Mary Milliken and Howard Goller)