Joe Biden raised concerns about China’s “coercive” behaviour and human rights abuses with Xi Jinping, in the first call between the US and Chinese presidents since Biden entered office three weeks ago.
The White House said the two leaders spoke on Wednesday evening Washington time. It added that Biden offered well wishes to Xi for the lunar new year but also registered his unease over a range of issues.
“President Biden underscored his fundamental concerns about Beijing’s coercive and unfair economic practices, crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and increasingly assertive actions in the region, including toward Taiwan,” the White House said.
Xi told Biden that “China-US confrontation will hurt both sides — co-operation is the only choice”, according to a summary of the call released by Chinese state television.
The tone of Xi’s comments was less confrontational than those of Yang Jiechi, China’s top foreign affairs official, in a call last week with Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state.
But China’s president warned that Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang were all “internal affairs related to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”. Xi said the US should “respect China’s core interests and act cautiously”.
The White House said the leaders also discussed how to tackle the coronavirus pandemic and climate change, and to prevent the proliferation of weapons.
“President Biden affirmed his priorities of protecting the American people’s security, prosperity, health, and way of life, and preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the White House said in its public account of the discussion.
The call came hours after Biden announced the creation of a Pentagon task force to help craft a comprehensive strategy for dealing with China.
A senior US official said ahead of the call that Biden had planned to raise a number of issues with Xi, including China’s crackdown on Hong Kong and its repression of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang. The president would “indicate that this is not just about American values, it’s about universal values”, the person said.
During the Trump administration, US-China relations reached their lowest point since diplomatic ties were established four decades ago. The former president took an aggressive stance over everything from Beijing’s trade practices to concerns about cyber espionage.
The official said that although Biden did not support how Donald Trump implemented his China policy, the president agreed with his predecessor that the US was engaged in an “intense strategic competition” with Beijing.
Another senior US official who has spent the past two weeks talking to American allies in Europe and Asia said there was a growing consensus that China’s behaviour was a concern, including “unprecedented economic attacks” towards Australia and “really aggressive actions” against Taiwan.
The Financial Times reported that Chinese warplanes entered Taiwan’s air defence zone just after Biden’s inauguration and simulated missile attacks on the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier in the South China Sea.
“The Chinese have sent Biden some tough warnings,” said Willy Lam, a China expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “The aggressive tactics they have shown towards Taiwan have escalated since Biden became president.”
Chinese officials had hoped Biden’s election victory would help stabilise relations. But early signs suggest the path will not be smooth. There is also bipartisan consensus in Congress that Washington must be tougher on China.
Blinken told Yang last week the US would stand up for democracy and human rights, signalling a hawkish stance towards China.
“I made clear the US will . . . hold Beijing accountable for its abuses of the international system,” Blinken wrote on Twitter following the call.
In response, Yang warned the US not to interfere in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, saying “no one can stop the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.
Biden told CBS News on Sunday that China would face “extreme competition” from the US. While he praised his Chinese counterpart — whom he knows from his time as Barack Obama’s vice-president — as “very bright”, he said Xi “doesn’t have a democratic . . . bone in his body”.
Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, has said Biden was prepared to “impose costs for what China is doing in Xinjiang, what it is doing in Hong Kong, for the bellicosity and threats that it is projecting towards Taiwan”.
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