President Biden spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday night for the first time since accession, beginning the process of reshaping America’s approach to dealing with its most intense economic competitor and strategic rival in the Pacific.
Biden “shared his greetings and good wishes with the Chinese people on the occasion of the lunar New Year,” according to a White House reading of the convocation, but he also stressed his fundamental concerns about Beijing’s coercive and unfair economic practices, Hong Kong crashes, violation of human rights in Xinjiang and increasingly self-assertive actions in the region, including vis-à-vis Taiwan.
Issues ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic to weapons control, Biden, said the White House, “committed to pursuing practical, results-oriented commitments as it promotes the interests of the American people and our allies.”
Although administration officials claimed that the “unpredictability” of President Trump’s personality-driven diplomacy left the United States in a weaker position vis-à-vis China, Biden will leave behind his predecessor’s tariffs on Chinese goods and choose not to abandon this leverage in deeper talks.
Biden’s aides, however, said the administration would not pursue Trump’s trade strategy, saying changes would come after an internal review and further talks with European and Asian allies.
The phone call with Xi, whom Biden knows well from his eight years as vice president, came after the president’s outreach to a number of Asian allies. Aides said these allies are eager for the United States to engage in more robust regional cooperation, especially in light of a more aggressive Chinese government.
Under Xi, Chinese military activity has increased in the South China Sea, and its economic dominance in the region has enabled Beijing to exert influence in Southeast Asia, Australia, and beyond. China’s violence against Hong Kong and the repression of the Uighur Muslim ethnic minority, which Foreign Minister Antony J. Blinken said was tantamount to genocide, have further strained bilateral relations.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, senior officials who previewed the call for journalists on Wednesday night expressed the administration’s general agreement with Trump’s broad view of China as a key strategic competitor, but an adviser said his four years in office had “exhausted the core of American sources of strength that put us in a weaker position. ”
Specifically, officials said the Trump presidency benefited China in several unintended ways, pointing to the destabilization of America’s political system and economy, the weakening of long-standing American alliances, the vacuum in international institutions amid Trump’s “America First” isolationism, and the lack of reaffirm and pursue a foreign policy centered on traditional democratic values.
“In a way, America’s policy was to do China’s work for it,” said one administration official.
In his first three weeks in office, Biden has sought to lay the groundwork for a reset and reaffirm US commitments to alliances and a value-based foreign policy, while reiterating a military presence in the region by engaging in exercises with allies and establishing a dual carrier presence in the South China Sea. The Pentagon is also conducting a comprehensive review of the US strategy towards China.
The administration has begun reaching out to Republicans to Congress on the importance of an infrastructure package later this year that will include investment in economic sectors that is key to the U.S. maintaining a competitive advantage with China, officials said.
The United States and China are locked in a battle for supremacy in telecommunications and advanced technologies that will help determine the leadership of the global economy.
While Biden from the start will maintain a tougher stance on China than the Obama administration had, he will also seek a personal rapprochement with Xi after Trump’s scattered outbursts and the recent ones sin of China in the midst of the pandemic, which the former president branded the “China virus.”
Biden officials have said there is room for cooperation with China on issues such as climate change and other areas of common concern where it is in the US national interest. At the same time, Biden is expected to be more forceful in matters of human rights and China’s economic activities, which are considered violent.
Xi “does not have a democratic, small D-bone in his body,” Biden said in an interview with CBS aired Sunday. “But … I have told him all along that we do not need to have a conflict. But there will be extreme competition. ”
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