Competition should not lead to conflict, Joe Biden tells Xi Jinping

A file combo picture of Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden.   | Photo Credit: AFP

U.S. President Joe Biden told his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on September 10 that both countries needed “to ensure competition does not veer into conflict” as they grapple with a growing list of differences.

The phone call was only the second between the two leaders, and the first time they have spoken since February, not long after Mr. Biden’s inauguration. The months since have seen both sides clash on a number of issues, starting with a war-of-words that played out in public when senior officials from the two countries met in Alaska in March in what was the first significant engagement with Beijing by the new administration. The differences range from human rights issues in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and the Taiwan question to the COVID-19 origins investigation and now the crisis in Afghanistan.

The rancorous U.S-China relationship under former President Donald Trump has broadly carried over into the new administration, which has said it would compete with China when it needed to, but also wanted to cooperate on some issues such as climate change. China, in contrast, has said that cooperation could not take place on issues while the broader relationship remained confrontational, described this month by Foreign Minister Wang Yi as a situation where “if an oasis is surrounded by deserts, then sooner or later the oasis will be desertified.”

In the September 10 call (September 9 night Washington time), both sides “had a broad, strategic discussion in which they discussed areas where our interests converge, and areas where our interests, values, and perspectives diverge”, the White House said in a brief statement. “They agreed to engage on both sets of issues openly and straightforwardly. This discussion, as President Biden made clear, was part of the United States’ ongoing effort to responsibly manage the competition between the United States and the PRC. President Biden underscored the United States’ enduring interest in peace, stability, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and the world and the two leaders discussed the responsibility of both nations to ensure competition does not veer into conflict,” the statement said.

A more detailed readout from the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Mr. Xi had “pointed out that for some time, due to the U.S. policy on China, the China-U.S. relationship has run into serious difficulty”. The Chinese leader said, “When China and the United States cooperate, the two countries and the world will benefit; when China and the United States are in confrontation, the two countries and the world will suffer.” He added: “Getting the relationship right is not an option, but something we must do and must do well.”

He said engagement on climate change, COVID-19 response and economic recovery could continue “on the basis of respecting each other’s core concerns and properly managing differences”.

Amid the differences, the prospect of cooperation does, however, appear dim for now on issues including climate change and Afghanistan. Mr. Wang, the Foreign Minister, in an August 29 phone call with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, slammed “the hasty withdrawal” of U.S. forces and told Mr. Blinken that the U.S. “on the premise of respecting Afghanistan’s sovereignty and independence, should take concrete actions to help Afghanistan combat terrorism and violence, rather than practicing double standards or selectively fighting terrorism.” He said while both sides had “recently conducted communication on such issues as the situation in Afghanistan and climate change”, the Chinese side “will consider how to engage with the United States based on its attitude towards China.” “If the U.S. side also hopes to bring bilateral relations back on the right track, it should stop blindly smearing and attacking China, and stop undermining China’s sovereignty, security and development interests,” Mr. Wang said.

In late July, Chinese officials presented visiting U.S. officials with “two lists” of demands in talks in Tianjin, named a “List of U.S. Wrongdoings that Must Stop” and a “List of Key Individual Cases that China Has Concerns With.” Among Beijing’s demands were to unconditionally revoke visa restrictions on Communist Party members, for the U.S. “to stop suppressing Chinese enterprises”, and to withdraw an extradition request for Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of tech firm Huawei who was arrested in Canada and is on trial. Mr. Wang also told Mr. Blinken the U.S. was “politicising origins tracing” of COVID-19, which he described as “a political burden left by the former U.S. government.” “The sooner the U.S. side unloads this burden, the easier it will be to get out of the current predicament,” he said.

A U.S. effort to engage China on climate change earlier this month did not appear to make much headway, after Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry travelled to Tianjin for talks with Chinese officials. Mr. Wang told him the prospect of cooperation hinged on how the U.S. handled other issues and that “the ball now is in the U.S. court”. He said, “The U.S. side wants the climate change cooperation to be an ‘oasis’ of China-U.S. relations. However, if the oasis is all surrounded by deserts, then sooner or later, the oasis will be desertified.”

(With inputs from Sriram Lakshman)

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Printable version | Oct 17, 2021 2:07:28 PM |

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