Joe Biden had his first call as president with Xi Jinping, a two-hour conversation in which he pressed the Chinese leader about trade and Beijing’s crackdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong as well as other human rights concerns.
The two leaders spoke Wednesday just hours after Biden announced plans for a Pentagon task force to review U.S. national security strategy in China and after the new U.S. president announced he was levying sanctions against Myanmar’s military regime following this month’s coup in the Southeast Asian country.
A White House statement said Biden raised concerns about Beijing’s “coercive and unfair economic practices.” Biden also pressed Xi on Hong Kong, human rights abuses against Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in the western Xinjiang province, and its actions toward Taiwan.
Biden in an exchange with reporters in the Oval Office on Thursday described his talk with Xi as a good conversation.
The president, however, expressed concern that Beijing will build an advantage as economic competitor if the U.S. doesn’t move quickly to bolster the nation’s infrastructure, including highways, bridges and public transportation.
“We don’t get moving, they’re going to eat our lunch,” Biden said at the start of a meeting with a bipartisan group of lawmakers and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
China’s state broadcaster CCTV struck a mostly positive tone about the conversation, saying Xi acknowledged the two sides had their differences, and those differences should be managed, but urged overall cooperation.
CCTV said Xi pushed back against Biden’s concerns on Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, saying the issues are China’s internal affairs and concern Chinese sovereignty. He warned, “The U.S. should respect China’s core interests and act with caution.”
Biden, who had dealt with the Chinese leader when he served as Barack Obama’s vice president, used his first three weeks in the White House to make several calls to other leaders in the Indo-Pacific region. He has tried to send the message that he would take a radically different approach to China than former President Donald Trump, who placed trade and economic issues above all else in the U.S.-China relationship.
With Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga late last month, Biden underscored the U.S. commitment to protecting the Senkaku Islands, a group of uninhabited islets administered by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing. In his call with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Biden emphasized the need for “close cooperation to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific.” And in his call with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week, the president highlighted that the two nations’ alliance was essential to stability in the region, the White House said.
Top aides to Biden have repeatedly heard from Asia-Pacific counterparts who had become discouraged by Trump’s frequently sharp rhetoric aimed at allies, talk of reducing troop levels in South Korea and odd interactions with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, according to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private calls.
Allies in the region have made clear they want a more purposeful and steady approach to engagements going forward, according to the official.
To that end, Biden and other top administration officials have taken care in their initial interactions with their counterparts to look to the long game in resetting the relationships.
Biden used Wednesday’s call to raise concerns about Beijing’s crackdown on activists in Hong Kong and about its policies affecting Muslims and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. In the final hours of the Trump administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that the Chinese Communist Party had committed crimes against humanity against the predominantly Muslim Uighurs and other minority groups.
China has denied any abuses and says the steps it has taken are necessary to combat terrorism and a separatist movement.
The White House also said Biden made clear his concern about Beijing’s increasingly “assertive” action with Taiwan. Beijing claims full sovereignty over Taiwan, even as it has been governed separately for more than seven decades.
Days into Biden’s presidency, China dispatched warplanes close to the island. The U.S. Navy, in turn, last week sent a guided-missile destroyer through the waterway that separates China and Taiwan.
The two leaders also spoke about this month’s military coup in the southeast nation of Myanmar. President Win Myint, de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other civilian officials were arrested as the military declared a one-year state of emergency and took over the government, according to the White House. The Biden administration has previously called for China to condemn the coup but did not detail the leaders’ exchange on the matter.
One area that Biden doesn’t appear ready to move quickly on is discontinuing Trump’s trade war with China, which led to tariffs on its steel, aluminum and other goods.
Biden plans to leave the tariffs in place as his administration conducts a top-to-bottom review of trade policy. Administration officials note that the president is still awaiting confirmation of his U.S. trade representative nominee, Katherine Tai, and his pick for commerce secretary, Gina Raimondo. Both are expected to play key roles in helping shape China trade policy.
Administration officials say Biden also wants to consult with allies in Asia and Europe before making decisions on tariffs.
Biden and Xi know each other well and have had frank exchanges.
Biden played host to then-Chinese vice president Xi during his 2012 visit to the United States. Biden used that visit to get a read of Xi and was blunt at moments, even raising concerns about Chinese theft of intellectual property and human rights abuses during a luncheon toast.
The following year, when Biden visited China, he publicly criticized Beijing for refusing to affirm that it would renew the visas of American journalists and for blocking the websites of American-based news organizations.
Biden has said he believes there are areas where the U.S. and China can work closely, such as addressing climate change and preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. But ultimately, Biden said recently, he expects the U.S.-China relationship to be one of “extreme competition” in coming years.
“I told him I will work with China when it benefits the American people,” Biden posted on Twitter after the call on Wednesday.
On Thursday, China’s state broadcaster said Xi told Biden: “You’ve said America’s greatest feature is possibility. I hope that this type of possibility will develop in a way that is conducive to improving relations between the two countries.”
Associated Press writer Huizhong Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, and Jonathan Lemire in Washington contributed to this report.