WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden said on Thursday that his first phone call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping since taking office lasted two hours.
“Last night, I was in the phone for two straight hours with Xi Jinping,” Biden told reporters — an unusually long interaction for a US president, with whom even face-to-face meetings rarely stretch beyond an hour.
Biden warned afterwards that if the United States doesn’t “get moving” on China policy, “they’re going to eat our lunch.” He challenged Xi on human rights, trade and regional muscle-flexing during the call, which aimed at setting the tone for the US-China relationship.
Beijing has tested US ties since Xi came to power, and under former president Donald Trump found itself on the receiving end of trade tariffs as relations frayed.
Biden — who met Xi during his time as vice president under Barack Obama — is under pressure to maintain Trump’s stance.
Earlier, the White House said the president “underscored his 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,” during the call.
The two leaders also spoke about the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and weapons proliferation, the White House said.
Biden also pressed Xi on Hong Kong, human rights abuses against Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in the western Xinjiang province, and its actions toward Taiwan.
Biden in an exchange with reporters in the Oval Office on Thursday described his talk with Xi as a good conversation.
The president, however, expressed concern that Beijing will build an advantage as economic competitor if the US doesn’t move quickly to bolster the nation’s infrastructure, including highways, bridges and public transportation.
China’s state broadcaster CCTV struck a mostly positive tone about the conversation, saying Xi acknowledged the two sides had their differences, and those differences should be managed, but urged overall cooperation.
CCTV said Xi pushed back against Biden’s concerns on Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, saying the issues are China’s internal affairs and concern Chinese sovereignty. He warned the US should respect China’s core interests and act with caution.
Biden, who had dealt with the Chinese leader when he served as Barack Obamas vice president, used his first three weeks in the White House to make several calls to other leaders in the Indo-Pacific region. He has tried to send the message that he would take a radically different approach to China than former President Donald Trump, who placed trade and economic issues above all else in the US-China relationship.
With Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga late last month, Biden underscored the US commitment to protecting the Senkaku Islands, a group of uninhabited islets administered by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing. In his call with Indias Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Biden emphasised the need for close cooperation to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific. And in his call with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week, the president highlighted that the two nations’ alliance was essential to stability in the region, the White House said.
Top aides to Biden have repeatedly heard from Asia-Pacific counterparts who had become discouraged by Trumps frequently sharp rhetoric aimed at allies, talk of reducing troop levels in South Korea and odd interactions with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, according to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private calls.
Published in Dawn, February 12th, 2021
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