Xi and Biden hold first phone call in nearly 2 years

The call comes ahead of trips to Beijing by the US secretaries of Treasury and State.
By Alex Willemyns for RFA
2024.04.02
Washington
Xi and Biden hold first phone call in nearly 2 years President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping, seen in file photos, had a rare phone conversion on Tuesday.
Saul Loeb/AFP

U.S. President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping spoke in a rare phone call on Tuesday morning, according to the White House, which described the talks as a “check-in” on bilateral ties.

Among other issues, the pair discussed China’s “destabilizing actions” against U.S. ally the Philippines in the South China Sea, its support for Russia in the war in Ukraine, a new security law in Hong Kong and Taiwan’s upcoming presidential inauguration, a U.S. official said.

It was the first call between the two leaders in nearly two years.

It came ahead of visits to Beijing by U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen “in the coming days” and by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken “in the coming weeks,” according to a White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the call.

It also took place amid the first cracks in a budding diplomatic truce declared late last year between the United States and China, with the Washington and Beijing feuding over trade policy and American authorities accusing China of a massive cyber-espionage program.

During the call, the two leaders discussed military ties, including China’s recent “destabilizing actions” against U.S. ally the Philippines near the Second Thomas Shoal and Beijing’s ongoing support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the White House official said.

ENG_CHN_BidenXiCall_04022024.2.jpg
A Chinese coast guard ship uses water cannons on a Philippine resupply vessel Unaizah May 4 as it approaches Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea on March 23, 2024. (Armed Forces of the Philippines via AP)

Biden also used the call “to reiterate the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, especially given the upcoming major presidential inauguration in Taiwan,” the official said, and the pair did not shy away from other “tough issues” that strain relations.

They discussed “the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy” after the passage of Article 23, which increased punishment for offenders convicted of breaching state secrets and granted the government sweeping new powers to crack down on all forms of dissent. 

Biden brought up U.S. claims of a massive state-run Chinese hacking program, but the two leaders also hit on “areas of cooperation where our interests align,” including counternarcotics and climate change.

“This is what responsible management of the relationship looks like,” the official said. “I would take this phone call as a ‘check-in.’”

Communication is key

The White House official said there would be few “new outcomes” in ties between China and the United States following the call.

But, the official added, it was important for occasional leader-level “check-ins” between the pair given the singular power now wielded by Xi in China’s authoritarian political system. 

In the background, senior U.S. and Chinese officials have for months been meeting in efforts to stabilize ties between the world’s two major powers, which last year appeared to have veered far off course.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met in Bangkok in January, while Wang and Blinken met in Munich in February. Both of those meetings followed Biden and Xi’s high-profile Nov. 15 in-person talks just outside San Francisco.

During that meeting, which ended more than a year of tense U.S.-China ties, the leaders agreed to reinstate talks between their militaries, cooperate on regulation of artificial intelligence and to stem the flow of precursors for the opioid fentanyl out of China.

Since then, there has been a marked absence of near accidents between the militaries in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait that punctuated 2023, and American and Chinese officials have ramped up cooperation to stop fentanyl making its way into the United States.

U.S. diplomats last month also backed a Chinese push at the United Nations to create global norms governing artificial intelligence, showing progress on the three main deals made in San Francisco.

Still, Biden and Xi had not spoken on the phone since July 2022, when Xi warned Biden against “playing with fire” over Taiwan, a democratic island claimed as territory by Beijing, ahead of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip there that led to a breakdown in U.S.-China ties.

“Looking back between the last two [Biden-Xi] summits – November 2022 and November 2023 – we did not have a leader-level call,” the White House official said. “Both sides realized that it's important to do that to really manage relationships in a more responsible fashion.”

Phoning it in

Planning for the call had been taking place since Sullivan and Wang met in January, but it was hard to nail down a time that worked. 

Sullivan and Wang agreed on the need for a direct call during the first three months of the year during their Bangkok meeting, the senior official said, “but the 12 hour time difference” between Washington and Beijing “does not make for easy scheduling, I can tell you.”

Yet, in the end, the call at a fortuitous time, with the coming weeks to see a whirlwind of meetings that will impact U.S.-China relations.

Biden is set to host Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. at the White House on April 11. It will be the first trilateral meeting between leaders of the three countries, and comes amid the growing tensions between Manila and Beijing over the Second Thomas Shoal.

Yellen, the U.S. Treasury secretary, also heads to China later this week, with meetings planned in Guangzhou and Beijing. The planned visit to Beijing “in the coming weeks” by Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, has not yet been announced by the State Department.

Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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