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Biden raises concerns with Chinese president in first official phone call

Speaking to Xi Jinping, Biden planned to bring up human rights, China's economic policies and Hong Kong, officials said.
Image: Joe Biden, TOPSHOT-US-politics-BIDEN-health
President Joe Biden in the Oval Office last month.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping by phone Wednesday evening for the first time since he took office, the White House said.

The White House said in a statement that Biden raised "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 statement said the leaders also discussed countering the Covid-19 pandemic and "the shared challenges of global health security, climate change, and preventing weapons proliferation."

Officials said Biden also planned to express his hope that the two leaders could cooperate on such issues as nuclear nonproliferation and climate change.

Biden doesn't plan for now to lift tariffs on China that were imposed by the Trump administration, senior administration officials said before the call, and he is unlikely to reduce the U.S. military presence in Asia, as former President Donald Trump had threatened to do.

Xi congratulated Biden on his inauguration and called for greater cooperation between the two countries, according to a transcript from Chinese state-owned Xinhua news agency,

“You said that the greatest feature of America is possibility. I hope that this possibility now develops in a direction conducive to the improvement of bilateral relations,” Xi said, according to the transcript.

The Chinese leader stressed, however, that issues relating to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang were part of "China's internal affairs" and urged America to respect this and act cautiously.

The call between the leaders of the world's two largest economies, coming three weeks after Biden's inauguration, follows a review of core elements of U.S. policy toward China during the Trump administration and extensive consultation with America's allies, the officials said.

One of them described Biden as being "in a strong position" to have a substantive conversation with Xi.

Image: Xi Jinping and Joe Biden in 2013
Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Joe Biden, then the vice president, in Beijing in 2013.Lintao Zhang / Pool via Reuters file

Officials said the call was aimed at signaling a new U.S. strategy that maintains a core tenet of the Trump administration's policy — intense competition — but takes a dramatically different approach.

"We looked at what the Trump administration did over four years and found merit in the basic proposition of an intense strategic competition with China and the need for us to engage in that vigorously, systematically, across every instrument of our government and every instrument of our power," a senior administration official said. "But we found deep problems with the way in which the Trump administration went about that competition."

Officials said one difference in Biden's approach will be an emphasis on engaging with U.S. allies, both in Europe and in the Asia Pacific region. Biden is expected, for example, to attend international forums for countries in the region, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, and the East Asia Summit, although it's unclear whether his appearances would be virtual given the pandemic. Former President Barack Obama regularly attended the ASEAN summit, for example, but Trump skipped it after his first year in office.

A second senior administration official said America's partners in Asia have expressed concerns about recent U.S. actions, including the unpredictability of the Trump administration and its "weird interactions with North Korea."

Officials were also adamant that Biden's China policy isn't a continuation of Trump's, saying he wasn't criticizing the toughness of Trump's approach but rather "that he was doing so alone while also fighting our allies and partners."

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The review of policy toward China continues in several areas, including a Defense Department effort announced Wednesday and a study of the Trump administration's tariffs.

Biden will decide about tariffs after extensive consultation with agencies across his administration and with U.S. partners in Asia and Europe — which a senior administration official said "is going to take some time."

"There will be changes to the trade policy towards China," the official said. "And in the meantime, we are not lifting the tariffs."

Among the policies the administration plans to continue is to further restrict China's access to certain types of sensitive technology. Officials said new restrictions on such exports would be coordinated with U.S. allies.

Officials said Biden didn't plan to raise the issue of Beijing's hosting the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.

Biden first got to know Xi as vice president at a time when it was clear that Xi would rise to the presidency. A senior administration official said Biden went into the phone call "practical, hard-headed, clear-eyed."

"He obviously has spent a lot of time with Xi Jinping over the years," one of the senior administration officials said. "The two leaders know each other very well."

The strategy Biden plans to adopt, the official said, "will play out not over the course of days or weeks or even months. It will play out over the course of years."

"That doesn't mean there isn't urgency," the official said. "There is urgency, and we are acting urgently. But it also means that we need to stick with this, and we need to play the long game."