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Biden and China’s Xi speak for a second time amid rising tensions

President Biden departs after delivering remarks at the White House on Thursday. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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President Biden spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping for the second time as president, the White House said Thursday, amid rising tensions over human rights, military ambitions, trade and the coronavirus.

The call Thursday evening in Washington yielded no specific announcements, including about whether the two leaders would meet in person for a much-anticipated summit this fall. It was meant to underscore Biden’s view that the United States and China are now the defining global competitors but can cooperate where each finds it useful, a senior U.S. official said before the call.

“The two leaders had a broad, strategic discussion in which they discussed areas where our interests converge, and areas where our interests, values and perspectives diverge,” a White House statement said.

The call followed discussions among lower-level officials in which U.S. officials had sought to set rules of the road to prevent stiff competition between the two nations from veering into conflict. Those discussions were unproductive, according to the senior Biden administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the White House.

Those included a chaotic scene in Alaska in March, when Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Chinese counterpart publicly rebuked one another.

“We have engaged PRC officials in several settings to try to advance and set those parameters, but what we have found, unfortunately, is they have largely been unwilling to engage in serious or substantive conversation on these matters,” the official said ahead of the presidents’ call. “What we’ve gotten is talking points which are more designed for propaganda” and domestic Chinese consumption, the official said.

The official used the acronym for the People’s Republic of China, the communist country’s official name.

Following the approximately 90-minute call, the same senior official described the tone as “familiar” and candid, and the topics wide-ranging.

“The two of them talked about not only why lines of communication at the leader level are important, but also about the ability for them to have private conversations,” the official said.

“That would be a difference. One challenge we’ve had in interactions over the last few months was the sense that they were playing for the press,” the official said.

The official would not predict whether calls between the two leaders would become more frequent.

China’s state-run broadcaster CCTV described the discussion as “candid and in-depth.” According to CCTV, Xi told Biden that U.S. policy toward China had “caused serious difficulties” in ties and that confrontation between the two would only “bring disaster to both countries and the world.”

Xi named climate change and the coronavirus pandemic as potential areas of cooperation. He called for the two countries to put their “relations back on the right track” as soon as possible and agreed to more “in-depth” conversations and regular contact.

Chinese official statements have hardened in recent months. The new ambassador to Washington, Qin Gang, said Tuesday that the United States persists in “wrong beliefs” about China and world affairs and warned of “disastrous consequences” if Washington follows what he called a “Cold War playbook.” That was interpreted as a reference to China’s store of nuclear weapons.

Qin also warned Washington not to cross a red line of Chinese regional interests in the South China Sea and Taiwan and not to interfere in Chinese affairs in Xinjiang, where the United States accuses China of human rights abuses against minority groups.

Biden’s choice to be ambassador to China, veteran diplomat and academic Nicholas Burns, has not yet won Senate confirmation and is weeks or months away from taking up his post.

China’s crackdown on everything is affecting everything in China

The call follows disappointing or inconclusive trips to China by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in July, and climate envoy John F. Kerry last week, and it comes ahead of what the Biden administration hopes will be a deeper commitment to Chinese climate initiatives in November at a global climate summit backed by the United Nations. With Biden and Xi initially expected to travel to Europe for the summit in Scotland and a gathering a few days before of the Group of 20, in Rome, a meeting between the two had seemed possible.

Biden recommitted this week to attend that November climate session, but Xi’s attendance at either forum is not certain.

Biden initiated the conversation Thursday, to “test the proposition that doing so at the leader level will be more effective than what we have found below him,” the U.S. official said.

The call also came as Biden is attempting to redirect U.S. foreign policy toward what he calls the threats and opportunities posed by China, and away from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Biden’s attempt to make a clean break from Afghanistan was complicated by the collapse of the Afghan government and a deadly terrorist attack in which 13 U.S. troops were killed in the waning days of the U.S. exit last month. China is already moving to establish a foothold in the resource-rich country, which straddles Europe and Asia.

China has committed $31 million in new food aid to Afghanistan and may be exploring ways to use the sprawling Bagram airfield abandoned by U.S. forces.

“The U.S. left a trail of destruction in Afghanistan,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Thursday. “. . . The U.S. asks others to respect basic human rights while remaining reticent on its track record of trampling on human rights in Afghanistan and inflicting new miseries on the Afghan people.”

Biden and Xi held an approximately two-hour call in February, weeks into Biden’s term, that the new administration hoped would set terms for a wary but friendly relationship. Xi has since participated in Biden’s global climate summit and said he is willing to cooperate further, but the United States has little to show for its outreach so far.

Chinese officials have sought to link cooperation on climate and other issues to benefits the country might receive from the United States, the U.S. official said.

China has not gotten what it wanted from Biden, who has criticized China over human rights and opted to maintain punitive tariffs applied by President Donald Trump. Biden sees the tariffs of as much as 25 percent as leverage to encourage cooperation, U.S. officials have said.

Trump applied the penalties on Chinese goods with the argument that the pressure would yield an omnibus trade agreement between the United States and China on terms favorable to Washington. He reached a preliminary agreement last year but never achieved the larger goal.

“The political will to overcome tensions in the relationship while forging a productive path on areas of mutual interest, including addressing the pandemic, climate and economic uncertainty, can only be accomplished at this stage by the two leaders talking,” said Myron Brilliant, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “It’s encouraging but it needs to be reinforced with concrete steps which will be hard but welcomed by the business community.”

China’s senior political leadership will gather in November in a run-up to a major Communist Party convocation next year that is expected to further cement Xi’s hold on power.

The Chinese Communist Party has unleashed a dizzying regulatory crackdown in recent months that has touched Chinese business, culture and education. Tech titans, movie stars, television offerings and even computer games have all been affected by what the government calls “rectification” orders.

Trump spoke admiringly of Xi’s maneuvering to consolidate power indefinitely. For his part, Biden has called Xi a smart and savvy opponent.

David J. Lynch in Washington and Lily Kuo in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.