Biden speaks to Xi on phone, highlights concerns about China’s economic practices

Different messages on Indo-Pacific, human rights, Chinese aggression

February 11, 2021 09:51 am | Updated November 28, 2021 02:25 pm IST - Washington

U.S. President Joe Biden with Chinese President Xi Jinping. File photo

U.S. President Joe Biden with Chinese President Xi Jinping. File photo

U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Wednesday evening (Washington time), the first call between the two leaders since Mr. Biden assumed office on January 20.

Mr. Biden highlighted concerns about Beijing’s economic practices, its human rights record and “assertive actions in the region” while affirming his priority of preserving a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” the White House said in a readout of the call.

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“President Biden affirmed his priorities of protecting the American people’s security, prosperity, health, and way of life, and preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific. President Biden underscored his fundamental concerns about Beijing’s coercive and unfair economic practices, crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and increasingly assertive actions in the region, including toward Taiwan ,” the White House said.

Mr. Xi, however, is reported to have said that Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang are matters internal to China, as per China’s state-run Xinhua news agency. China and the U.S. should “ jointly safeguard peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region,” Mr. Xi is reported to have said. “The Taiwan question and issues relating to Hong Kong, Xinjiang, etc. are China's internal affairs and concern China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the U.S. side should respect China’s core interests and act prudently,” Mr. Xi said, as per Xinhua.

Mr. Biden, who, as Vice-President in the Obama administration, had worked with Mr. Xi, has entered the White House at a time when U.S.-China relations are deeply strained over a trade war (started during the Trump administration) and growing Chinese assertiveness in Asia. The Trump administration — towards its end — had criticised Beijing for its human rights abuses against China’s Uighur Muslim minority and crackdowns in Hong Kong. The Biden administration is conducting a review of Trump administration’s trade policies on China as well as a review of the impact of Chinese tech companies on U.S. national security. The administration is also, at least for the moment, not going forward with a Trump administration ban on social media app TikTok and its take-over by a U.S. company, according to reports.

However, the Biden administration hopes to build on the Trump administration’s strengthening of the Quad (the Indo-Pacific group of countries comprising India, the U.S., Australia and Japan), U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan recently said.

Tackling COVID-19

The Biden administration has said it will cooperate with China when it is in America’s interest to do so, a message that was reiterated in the call as per the White House. “The two leaders also exchanged views on countering the COVID-19 pandemic, and the shared challenges of global health security, climate change, and preventing weapons proliferation. President Biden committed to pursuing practical, results-oriented engagements when it advances the interests of the American people and those of our allies,” the readout said.

Mr. Xi told Mr. Biden that cooperation was the “only right choice” for the U.S. and China, who stand to lose from confrontation, according to Xinhua.

“The two sides should re-establish the various dialogue mechanisms, read each other's policy intentions accurately, and avoid misunderstanding and miscalculation,” Mr. Xi is reported to have said.

Both readouts made a reference to greetings being shared for the Chinese (Lunar) New Year — the Year of the Ox.

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