With Xi Jinping, U.S. President Joe Biden had his first call as president, pressing the Chinese chief on trade and Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong democracy activists as well as other human rights issues.
On Wednesday, the two leaders met just hours after Biden revealed plans for a Pentagon task force to study China’s U.S. national security policy and after the incoming U.S. president announced he was levying sanctions against the military government of Myanmar following the coup in the southeast Asian country this month.
Biden raised questions about “coercive and unfair economic practises” in Beijing, a White House statement said. Biden also pressed Xi on Hong Kong, human rights violations toward Uighurs and ethnic minorities in the province of western Xinjiang, and his behaviour against Taiwan.
After the call, Biden posted on Twitter, “I told him I’ll work with China when it benefits the American people.”
China’s CCTV state broadcaster struck a more optimistic note about the discussion, saying Xi recognised the gaps between the two sides, and those differences should be handled, but encouraged general cooperation.
CCTV said Xi pushed back against Biden’s Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang fears, claiming China’s internal relations and Chinese sovereignty are the problems.
“The US ought to respect the core interests of China and act with caution,” Xi was quoted as saying.
When he served as Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden, who had dealt with the Chinese king, used his first three weeks in the White House to make some calls with other leaders in the Indo-Pacific region. He sought to convey the message that his approach to China would be drastically different from that of former President Donald Trump, who put trade and economic problems above all else in the relationship between the US and China.
Late last month, with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Biden underscored the US determination to secure the Senkaku Islands, a group of uninhabited Tokyo-administered but Beijing-affirmed islets. In his appeal to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Biden stressed the need for “close cooperation to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific.” And last week, in his appeal to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the president emphasised that the alliance of the two nations was key to the region’s stability, the White House said.
According to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to address private calls, top aides to Biden have frequently heard from Asia-Pacific counterparts who were discouraged by Trump’s sometimes sharp rhetoric directed at allies, talk of reducing troop levels in South Korea and odd encounters with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
According to the official, allies in the area have made it known that they want a more purposeful and steady approach to future engagements.
To that end, in their early meetings with their colleagues, Biden and other senior administration officials have taken precautions to look at the long game in resetting partnerships.
Biden used the call on Wednesday to address questions about Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong activists and about its policies in Xinjiang impacting Muslims and ethnic minorities. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced in the final hours of the Trump administration that the Chinese Communist Party had committed crimes against humanity against the mainly Muslim Uighurs and other ethnic groups.
In order to fight terrorism and a separatist movement, China has denied any violations and insists the measures it has taken are necessary.
Biden also made clear his worry about Beijing’s more “assertive” behaviour with Taiwan, the White House said. Beijing claims absolute sovereignty over Taiwan, even though, for more than seven decades, the two sides have been ruled independently.
Days into Biden’s presidency, warplanes were deployed by China near the island. In contrast, the U.S. Navy sent a guided-missile destroyer across the waterway separating China and Taiwan last week.
The discontinuation of Trump’s trade war with China, which resulted in tariffs on their steel, aluminium and other products, is one region that Biden does not seem able to act rapidly on.
As his government is undertaking a top-to-bottom analysis of trade policies, Biden expects to keep the tariffs in place. Officials of the administration note that the president is also seeking approval from his candidate for U.S. trade representative, Katherine Tai, and Gina Raimondo, his pick for trade secretary. It is anticipated that both will play important roles in influencing China’s trade policy.
Officials from the administration say Biden also needs to meet with allies in Asia and Europe before making tariff decisions.
Biden and Xi are well acquainted with each other and have had frank conversations.
On his 2012 visit to the US, Biden played host to then Chinese Vice President Xi. Biden used the visit to get Xi to read and was frank at times, even raising questions during a luncheon toast about Chinese intellectual property theft and human rights violations.
When Biden visited China the following year, he openly denounced Beijing for refusing to affirm that it would extend American journalists’ visas and for banning American-based news media websites.