President Joe Biden made his first phone call to Chinese leader Xi Jinping on February 10, which was as controversial as possible.
According to the White House ad, Biden raised concerns about “Beijing’s forced and unfair economic practices” as well as China’s “crackdown on Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang and increasingly self-confident actions in the region, including Taiwan.”
It’s about as tense as introductory talks. Instead of the usual subtleties, Biden took the opportunity to let Xi know what kind of behavior he would and would not accept from the Chinese. A senior civil servant signaled this on a preview call with reporters, saying, “The spirit with which [Biden] will come to the call tonight, will be practical, persistent and with clear eyes. “
However, Xi did not accept Biden’s criticism. State-run Chinese media reports on the appeal said the Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang issues were “China’s internal affairs related to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” The US should “respect China’s core interests and act cautiously,” Xi told Biden.
Simply put, Biden told Xi to stop and stop being so brutal, and Xi told Biden to leave China alone and mind his own business.
Donald Trump’s first call to Xi as president was not like this. At the time, the US ad called their conversation “extremely cordial”, stating that “at the request of President Xi” Trump had agreed to reaffirm America’s commitment to the “One China” policy, which the US had Taiwan as part of Recognize China.
This has been US policy since 1979, but it was strange to say that Trump would stick to it because Xi asked him to.
Although the Trump years were marked by antagonism to China on many issues, particularly trade, this was clearly not the case in the early days.
Trump himself was also not particularly tough on Xi in Hong Kong, where China has dramatically expanded its efforts to crush the democracy movement and restrict the freedoms of the territory last year. He was also not very self-conscious about Xinjiang, the Chinese province, where the government has arrested millions of Uighur Muslims in concentration camps and, among other things, forced them into brutal psychological indoctrination programs.
Biden, on the other hand, made the conscious decision to push Beijing back early and specifically addressed the human rights concerns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. However, he also promised to cooperate with China if it suited not only American interests but those of US allies – presumably Japan, South Korea, Australia, and others.
“The contrast between the call displays from Biden’s first call and Trump’s first call to Xi is illuminating,” said Ryan Hass, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Biden’s ad focused on a number of specific topics, while highlighting Trump’s personality and chemistry as the main features of the call.”
For this reason in particular, experts were delighted to see how Biden started his first conversation with Xi.
“It seems like the government was trying to use a clear, consistent tone to be really open about the range of US concerns about Beijing’s behavior and about the competitive nature of the relationship as a whole, and the appeal reflects that,” Sheena said Greitens, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
Wednesday’s conversation underscored one of the earliest topics in Biden’s foreign policy: he won’t fight back against major US opponents, but he won’t just argue with them either.
Biden’s plan for China and Russia: Compete a lot, work together where possible
Biden has so far pursued a consistent plan to face America’s great power rivals: The US will criticize and even punish China and Russia for human rights abuses, cyberattacks and predatory economic practices, but it will also try to work with them when interests are aligned .
Take Biden’s first call with Russian President Vladimir Putin in January. Biden pressed his counterpart on the poisoning of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny – many suspect that it was an assassination ordered by the Kremlin – and the arrest of hundreds of demonstrators by the government who demonstrated in support of Navalny. Biden also reiterated US support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, which has been under threat since Russia invaded the country in 2014.
But those major political disagreements didn’t stop the US and Russia earlier this month when the two countries agreed to extend the last remaining nuclear deal between them for another five years. Although Secretary of State Tony Blinken released a statement praising the move, he also said, “We are keeping a clear eye on the challenges Russia poses to the United States and the world.”
“While we work with Russia to advance US interests, we will also work to hold Russia accountable for controversial actions and human rights violations, in close coordination with our allies and partners,” added Blinken.
So Bidens is not a completely confrontational approach, but rather a transactional one. There are many things that Washington disagrees with Beijing and Moscow on – and Biden will let them know – but there are also some areas where the adversaries can work together. Biden doesn’t want to close the door on making progress in these areas.
Broadcasting early is good news, but it’s also a difficult situation to navigate long-term. For example, if China continues to antagonize Taiwan or Russia launches more cyberattacks against the US, Biden will have less room to work with those countries. The possibility of dipping ties remains.
But UT Austin’s Greitens believes calls like the one Biden just had with Xi could help alleviate such issues.
“Clarity about the strength and nature of US concerns is important to avoid misunderstanding,” she told me. “It is best for the US and China to clearly define where they can work together, where it serves the interests of both countries, so that cooperation is on a solid foundation.”
It is now Biden’s job to make sure that there are no misunderstandings. If it fails, two of America’s most important relationships could deteriorate.