(CNSNews.com) – President Joe Biden spoke Wednesday by phone to Chinese President Xi Jinping for the first time since becoming president, a conversation which according to the White House included wishes for the Chinese new year on Friday and an exchange of views “on countering the COVID-19 pandemic.”
A brief White House readout of the call made no reference to deep concerns shared by the U.S. and some allies about the Chinese authorities’ mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak that emerged in Wuhan in late 2019.
Biden did, however, raise criticism of China’s behavior in a range of other areas which have impacted the relationship, according to the readout.
“President Biden 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,” it read.
The full readout follows:
President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. spoke today with President Xi Jinping of China.
The President shared his greetings and well wishes with the Chinese people on the occasion of Lunar New Year. President Biden affirmed his priorities of protecting the American people’s security, prosperity, health, and way of life, and preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific.
President Biden 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.
The two leaders also exchanged views on countering the COVID-19 pandemic, and the shared challenges of global health security, climate change, and preventing weapons proliferation.
President Biden committed to pursuing practical, results-oriented engagements when it advances the interests of the American people and those of our allies.
Noting that the call came on the eve of the Chinese new year, the editor of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) paper Global Times tweeted that the timing “shows Biden is willing to send the message that he respects President Xi and China. He hopes the U.S. can maintain bottom line of no conflict while engaging in strategic competition with China.”
Biden has spoken periodically over the years about how much time he has spent with Xi, in reference to their meetings and travel together when both men were vice presidents. (“I’ve spent more time in private meetings with Xi Jinping than any world leader,” he told a Council on Foreign Relations event in 2018. “We traveled to each other’s countries, spent literally scores of hours together,” he told the Munich security conference in 2013.)
Last week he described Xi – in his first network television interview since taking office – as “very bright” and “very tough,” then added, “He doesn’t have – and I don’t mean it as a criticism, just a reality – he doesn’t have a democratic, small d, bone in his body.”
The U.S.-China relationship soured significantly last year, with the Trump administration imposing sanctions against CCP officials over mass human rights violations in Xinjiang and the clampdown on democracy in Hong Kong, restricting Chinese state media outlets, encouraging U.S. schools to shut down Confucius Institutes, and targeting Chinese companies like Huawei, which it accused of spying and property theft, among a range of other measures.
Beijing’s irritation over U.S. Navy freedom-of-navigation missions in the disputed South China Sea, and anger over shifts in the U.S. approach towards Taiwan, such as the lifting of self-imposed restrictions on high-level official contacts between the U.S. and Taiwanese governments, contributed to the tensions.
But arguably the factor causing most ill-will on both sides has been the coronavirus pandemic.
The Trump administration and other critics accused Beijing of early attempts to cover up the emerging epidemic including by silencing and punishing doctors and scientists who raised the alarm, restricting domestic travel while allowing international travel from the epicenter, insinuating that the U.S. military brought the virus to Wuhan, and weeks-long delays in allowing the U.S. and others to get experts into the country.
Beijing hit back, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in particular becoming a regular target of vitriol during Chinese foreign ministry briefings and in state media commentaries.
Last August, the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center reported that the Chinese government wanted President Trump to lose the election, and was “expanding its influence efforts ahead of November 2020 to shape the policy environment in the United States.”
While China hotly defended its response to the outbreak in the face of Washington’s criticism, opinion polls through last year found rising negative views of China and Xi, both in the U.S. and many other key countries.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spoken several times in recent weeks, including during his Senate confirmation hearing and at his first press briefing at the State Department, about the need to manage a U.S.-China relationship that has adversarial and competitive elements, but also areas of potential cooperation, notably in the area of combating climate change.
The CCP’s top foreign policy official, Yang Jiechi, said earlier this month the poor state of relations was the fault of the Trump administration, while portraying China and the CCP as the victim of unwarranted hostility.
Yang voiced hope Biden would take a different approach, saying the two sides “need to respect each other, seek common ground while putting aside differences, keep disagreements under effective control and expand common interests.”
He warned, though that China’s “core interests” – issues such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang – “constitute a red line that must not be crossed.”