US President Joe Biden called for better and more “honest” communication between China and the US during a virtual call with Chinese President Xi Jinping where both leaders played up their close relationship.
The two leaders were holding discussions over video conference at a time when the two countries’ relationship is deteriorating over issues including Taiwan, Hong Kong and Beijing’s treatment of the predominantly Muslim Uighurs in its far western region of Xinjiang.
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In his opening remarks ahead of the call on Monday night in the US, Biden acknowledged that competition between the US and China was expected but said it was his and Xi’s personal responsibility as leaders to ensure that rivalry did not veer into conflict, according to a White House transcript.
“It seems to me we need to establish some common sense guardrails, to be clear and honest where we disagree, and work together where our interests intersect, especially on vital global issues like climate change,” Biden said.
“And I think it’s very important, as I’ve told other world leaders when they ask about our relationship, is that we have always communicated with one another — with one another very honestly and candidly,” he also said. “We never walk away wondering what the other man is thinking.”
Biden’s comments contrast with the early days of his administration when a meeting in March between top US and Chinese officials turned into an acrimonious confrontation as Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat and a member of the Politburo, told Secretary of State Antony Blinken not to meddle in China’s internal affairs.
Since then, the Biden administration and Beijing have traded barbs over sensitive topics, including recent Chinese incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone. China claims the island, a self-ruled democracy of more than 23 million people, as its own, while the US views it as a key ally in its Indo-Pacific defence strategy.
During the vcall with Xi, Biden said the US opposes “unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” according to a White House statement.
The US maintains a policy of “strategic ambiguity” towards Taiwan, whose formal name is the Republic of China, but since the Trump Administration, US officials are increasingly outspoken offering assistance to the democracy in an event of an attack.
“They are moving towards strategic clarity, although the official policy will not abandon ‘strategic ambiguity’ in the short term. Biden has already talked about this several times and then reports from the Pentagon also stressed that the US they must ‘deter’ China’s use of force,” said Fang-Yu Chen, an assistant professor of Political Science at Soochow University in Taiwan. “It is very clear that US is concerned about the Taiwan Strait.”
Speaking from Beijing, Xi said the two countries faced multiple challenges.
He referred to Biden as “my old friend,” and said the rivals must work more closely together. “China and the United States need to increase communication and cooperation,” he said.
China’s state media noted the “friendly tone” of the opening of the discussions, and reflected the “personal relationship” between the two leaders, Wu Xinbo, dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, told the state-run Global Times. The two men previously met in person while each was serving as vice president under the leadership of Barack Obama and Hu Jintao respectively.
“It’s rare for heads of state to have such a long conversation, and such a good relationship is seen as a positive condition for handling bilateral ties,” Wu told the paper.
The virtual summit lasted for more than three and a half hours, wrapping up shortly before 12.30pm (04:30 GMT) Beijing time, according to Chinese state media.
The two leaders have spoken by phone twice since Biden’s inauguration in January, but Xi has not travelled overseas since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, ruling out the chance of a face-to-face meeting.
Chen said he did not expect the largely ceremonial meeting would have a major impact on US-China relations, but it did show how US policy towards China had changed to viewing the country as a potentially risky competitor.
“Many, many analysts say that is the first time that the US is not pretending to be (friends.) The US is, frankly speaking, trying to contain China,” Chen said. “Since the Trump administration’s trade war and now with the Biden administration (we see the US) taking a full government-approach to try to compete with China. So it is a very clear trend, and I don’t see any change, even though there are some meetings or conferences, in the US China policy.”
In a call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken ahead of the talks, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi highlighted Taiwan as a critical point of contention between the two countries.
With reporting by Erin Hale in Taipei