President Joe Biden wanted to speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the days after the U.S. military shot down a Chinese surveillance balloon off the coast of South Carolina — even saying publicly that he expected to do so — but his top national security advisers talked him out of it, according to two senior administration officials and one former senior U.S. official familiar with the discussions.
Biden believed his relationship with Xi could help tamp down the newly escalated tensions with Beijing if he had the opportunity to speak directly and smooth things over, the officials said. But the president’s advisers made the case to him that it was not the right time for a leader-to-leader conversation, the officials said. Instead, Biden’s advisers told him, the best course of action was to begin outreach to Beijing with lower or midlevel officials, and work the way up to the top, according to the officials.
China was far too angry over Biden’s decision to have the balloon shot down, after it had flown across the U.S. for a week, for a phone call with Xi to be productive, the officials said the president’s advisers told him.
“The goal is not to get Biden and Xi on the phone,” a senior administration official said. The goal is to get the U.S.-China “relationship back on track,” the official said.
In a statement, National Security Council spokesperson Adam Hodge said, "President Biden was not talked out of a call with President Xi and the administration has always emphasized the importance of maintaining multiple channels of communication to manage competition and avoid conflict with China."
China’s anger over the balloon, which it maintains was an unmanned civilian airship that strayed off course, had been further stoked by the administration’s response. Washington postponed Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s imminent Beijing trip, which had been in the works for months, and the White House publicly accused China in February of considering providing lethal military aid to Russia for use in the war in Ukraine.
In the months since, the Biden administration has focused on trying to restore relations by building confidence on each side, with conversations and meetings below the presidential level. The White House had an initial breakthrough when Blinken secured a meeting with China’s top foreign policy official, Wang Yi, on the sidelines of a conference in Munich in February after the balloon was shot down. But over the next few months, communications between Washington and Beijing had largely ceased, with the White House struggling to secure conversations between key officials.
Last month, national security adviser Jake Sullivan secured a meeting with top Chinese officials in Vienna. Also in May, CIA Director William Burns secretly traveled to Beijing for meetings with Chinese officials, and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo hosted her Chinese counterpart in Washington, D.C. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said she plans to visit China “at the appropriate time.”
The former senior U.S. official familiar with the discussions said White House officials “want to calm the waters with China, so they are trying to get visits by Cabinet officials in place.” The official said part of the strategy behind dissuading the president from calling Xi is “so it doesn’t look like Biden is pleading for talks,” though another official disputed that as a concern.
But the internal pushback helps explain why Biden and Xi have not spoken since the president said nearly four months ago that a call between the leaders of the world’s two largest economies would be taking place. “I expect to be speaking with President Xi, and I hope we are going to get to the bottom of this,” Biden said Feb. 16, two weeks after the balloon was shot down off the South Carolina coast.
A phone call between Biden and Xi is not expected to take place ahead of Blinken’s visit this weekend, according to two senior administration officials.
Blinken’s trip comes amid concerns about heightened tensions between the U.S. and China over recent close encounters between their two militaries.
Earlier this month, a Chinese warship cut directly in front of the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Chung-Hoon as it was transiting the Taiwan Strait. At one point, the Chinese vessel was only 150 yards from the American ship, operating in what the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command called “an unsafe manner.” The incident followed a similar one in the skies over the South China Sea: Late last month, a J-16 Chinese fighter jet flew directly in front of a U.S. military RC-135 surveillance plane, an action the Pentagon called an “unnecessarily aggressive maneuver.”
In both cases, the Chinese government maintained the U.S. was acting provocatively by operating in the airspace over the South China Sea and in the waters of the Taiwan Strait, which China claims as its territory. The U.S. government, on the other hand, insists it was operating in international airspace and waterways. After the incidents, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the U.S. will not “flinch in the face of bullying or coercion” from China and would continue to fly and sail in the region.
Despite economic and diplomatic communications between the two countries, China continues to reject formal discussions between Austin and his Chinese counterpart. Beijing recently rebuffed Austin’s request for a meeting with Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu, though the two did recently shake hands and exchange brief pleasantries at a summit in Singapore. Li has been under U.S. sanctions since 2018, and though they don’t block him from engaging with U.S. officials, China wants them lifted. Biden said last month that lifting sanctions on Li was “under negotiation,” but the State Department later said such a move is not under consideration.
When it comes to China relations, as with much of his approach to foreign policy, Biden’s instinct often is to employ personal diplomacy. He has frequently said he’s spent more time with Xi than with any other leader. After the controversy over the Chinese surveillance balloon — which flew over several sensitive U.S. military sites gathering up intelligence — he genuinely believed what he said publicly, that if he could talk to Xi, the two could sort out their differences over the balloon and move on, officials said.
As the president’s advisers made the case that the moment wasn’t ripe for a call with Xi, U.S. lawmakers and people across the country were reacting angrily to the balloon, and Biden faced criticism for allowing it to linger over the U.S. and transmit information back to Beijing in real time before it was shot down.
Biden agreed, but his belief in the role of relationships in foreign policy persists and he’s revisited the idea in the months since, officials said.