September 28. 2021. 5:12

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Biden and Xi speak on phone amid impasse in Sino-US relationship

The phone call between Xi Jinping and Joe Biden comes amid a raft of thorny issues between the two nations. Photograph: AFP via Getty Images


Joe Biden has held his second call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping since becoming president in an effort to break an impasse in the Sino-US relationship after previous top-level meetings produced little progress.

The White House said the two leaders had a “broad, strategic discussion” and that Mr Biden had “underscored the United States’ enduring interest in peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and the world”.

The pair also discussed the “responsibility of both nations to ensure competition does not veer into conflict” during the call.

China’s foreign ministry said the talks were candid, and quoted Mr Xi as saying that US policies towards Beijing were responsible for “serious difficulties” in relations. It was the first time the two presidents have spoken since February.

Mr Biden requested the call after the White House concluded that Chinese officials who met their US counterparts this year were “unwilling to engage in serious or substantive conversations”, according to a senior US official.

“What we’ve gotten is the usual talking points, which are more designed for propaganda purposes,” the official said. “Xi has really centralised power in some pretty marked ways . . . engagement at the leader level is really what’s needed to move the ball forward.”

Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, and national security adviser Jake Sullivan met Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, and foreign minister Wang Yi in Alaska in March for talks that included an extraordinary public spat. Wendy Sherman, deputy secretary of state, held a meeting with Mr Wang in Tianjin last month.

‘Antics’

The US official said the discussions were marred by China tweeting criticism of Washington while the officials met behind closed doors, which she described as “antics”.

Mr Biden and Mr Xi had a different kind of interaction during their call partly because they had spent time together, the official said. Mr Biden visited China in 2011 when he was vice-president and hosted Mr Xi, who was also vice-president, in the US the following year.

“They have an ability to be candid and honest and frank with each other in a way that is not lecturing or in any way condescending . . . Both of them were honest about their views,” the official said.

Mr Biden has not met Mr Xi since he became president, reflecting the dismal state of Sino-US relations and the impact of the pandemic in limiting foreign travel for both leaders. Mr Xi has not left China since he visited Myanmar in January 2020, when the coronavirus was first identified in Wuhan.

The US president has taken a much more hawkish stance on China than most experts had expected, and has rebuked Beijing over everything from its crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong to the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang.

Chinese officials and analysts have blamed the US for the impasse and said Mr Biden’s decision to maintain the hardline policies of the Trump administration had blocked progress even on issues where the rivals’ interests are aligned, such as climate change. Ahead of a meeting between Beijing and Washington’s climate envoys last week, Mr Wang said “the ball now is in the US court”.

“The US has been clearly opposed to China on important issues such as Taiwan, the South China Sea and human rights,” said Shi Yinhong, a foreign policy expert at Renmin University in Beijing. “The relationship between the two countries will continue to deteriorate unless they can find common ground.”

Critical step

Evan Medeiros, an Asia expert at Georgetown University and a former top adviser to former president Barack Obama, said the call was a critical step that could pave the way to an in-person meeting.

“In such a competitive relationship, leader-level diplomacy is an essential component to managing competition well,” he said. “It’s been seven months, and seven hard ones for US-China. It’s time for the leaders to grab the reins again.”

The Biden administration has discussed meeting with Mr Xi at the G20 summit in Italy in October but Chinese media suggested the Chinese president may only attend the event virtually. The US official said the White House had no indication about whether Mr Xi would attend the meeting in person. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021