February 11, 2021

Asia

US/CHINA: Biden-Xi call suggests possibilities for progress

BY Gabriel Wildau

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( 3 mins)

US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping held a phone call on 10 February, the first direct contact between the US and Chinese heads of state since March 2020. As with last week’s call between Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Yang Jiechi, director of the Communist Party’s Central Foreign Affairs Commission, the public readouts show little signs of progress in repairing the bilateral relationship. Indeed, the readouts barely even overlap in terms of the topics addressed, apart from mutual greetings for the Lunar New Year.

The brief US statement emphasizes that Biden addressed topics that Beijing regards as sensitive “red line” issues – Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xinjiang – though these references are balanced somewhat by parallel references to “shared challenges” including, public health, climate change, and weapons proliferation. The Chinese readout is lengthier but consists mostly of vague boilerplate about “mutual respect” and the need to “handle differences constructively,” while Xi repeated Beijing’s position that the red line issues broached by Biden are China’s internal affairs. Xi also suggested re-establishing various issue-specific dialogues that the Trump administration had suspended and called for regular contact between ” economic, financial, law enforcement and military authorities.”

While the readouts alone suggest little possibility that the two governments can substantially improve relations in the short term, subsequent reporting indicates that the two leaders spoke for two straight hours. Even allowing for sequential translation, this detail suggests a far more substantive conversation than the public readouts indicate. Also indicating a degree of comity is that, unlike readouts from previous high-level calls, Beijing’s latest readout does not specify that the call occurred at Washington’s request. Regardless of which side actually initiated the call, the decision not to specify may signal a degree of solicitousness from Beijing.

Given the length of the call, the brief and cautious public readouts can plausibly be viewed as an effort to protect both leaders from domestic critics eager to accuse them of going “soft” and offering concessions too easily. Even under this more optimistic interpretation, however, the possibility of major rapprochement remains modest in the short term. In comments following the call, Biden administration officials attempted to situate the conversation with Xi within the context of a broader US plan for successful strategic competition with China. The comments appear to be an effort to reassure hardliners that Biden is not rushing towards a hasty “reset” of relations to the pre-Trump status quo. Among other initiatives, the White House National Security Council is conducting a review of China-related technology issues, while the Pentagon will conduct its own broad review of China policy. Given the various policy processes in motion, the Biden administration is unlikely to take decisive action to improve relations with China until these initiatives progress further.

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