President Biden makes remarks on the federal response to Hurricane Ida in Washington on September 2, 2021. On Thursday, Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke on the phone for only the second time since he took office. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images Hide caption
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
President Biden held a phone call on Thursday with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, only the second since he took office, in an US-initiated attempt to stabilize the relationship and persuade Beijing to make substantial commitments in the face of intensifying competition.
The world’s two largest economies are at a stalemate fueled by simmering disagreements on issues such as trade, technology and human rights. That has affected communication and cooperation between Washington and Beijing.
The White House said in a statement that Biden and Xi “had a broad, strategic discussion, discussing areas where our interests converge and areas where our interests, values and perspectives diverge.”
“You have agreed to be open and direct on both issues,” said the White House.
The Biden administration has said the US welcomes competition with China but wants to work together on areas of common concern such as climate change. Chinese officials say it is unrealistic for the US to expect cooperation while taking steps Beijing considers harmful to China’s interests.
The White House statement said the two heads of state and government had “discussed the responsibility of both nations to ensure that competition does not get into conflict”.
The call comes because Biden’s approval ratings are plummeting at home, in part due to the way he handled the U.S. exit from Afghanistan. With the withdrawal now complete, however, the president is turning back to US relations with China, which he has identified as his top foreign policy priority.
At the end of August, Biden emphasized his priorities in a speech on the US exit from Afghanistan.
“We are in serious competition with China. We are dealing with Russia on several fronts. We are facing cyber attacks and the proliferation of nuclear weapons,” he said.
“And there is nothing China or Russia would rather like to see more of in this competition than the United States being stuck in Afghanistan for another decade.”
Biden and Xi are expected to attend the G-20 meeting in Rome next month, despite speculation that Xi might not be able to attend in person. Chinese and US leaders have traditionally held a bilateral summit on the sidelines of the meeting, but it is unclear whether that will happen this year.
A senior Biden government official said the idea for Thursday’s call came out of frustration with a perceived unwillingness of subordinate Chinese officials to “have serious or substantive discussions.”
The official said Biden initiated the call with Xi “to really have a broad and strategic discussion on how to manage competition between the United States and China.”
“It is very likely that leadership engagement is really what it takes to get the ball forward,” said the official.
But it was unclear how receptive Xi would be.
Xi has amassed more power than any other Chinese leader since Mao Zedong and is poised for a rare third term as Communist Party leader next year and President in 2023.
Since Xi has so much power and “does not have to appear for anyone above him,” said the senior administrative official, the call would be a test of saying that he may have more leeway.