President Joe Biden held his first official phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday night, marking an end to weeks of conspicuous silence between the leaders.
During the call, Biden confronted Xi about China’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,” according to a readout of the call. They also discussed the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change, among other issues.
The call, which came three weeks after Biden’s inauguration, was the product of extensive consultations with U.S. allies in Europe and Asia about constructing a new China strategy, two senior administration officials said on Wednesday.
Biden had spoken to more than a dozen other heads of state, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, before calling Xi, raising questions about whether Washington was giving Beijing a head start on ramming through its foreign policy and trade initiatives. The officials acknowledged that the new administration is “being very careful in our initial interactions with China,” but said the preparatory discussions with allies had put Biden in a “strong position” to negotiate with his Chinese counterpart.
“This is a sustainable strategy that will play out over the course of years,” one of the officials said. “We need to stick with this, play the long game, and make investments in these foundational components.” The official argued that while there was “merit in the basic proposition” of a strategic competition with China, there were “deep problems”’ with how the Trump administration had gone about it—specifically, Trump’s reluctance to engage with key allies on the issue and bungling of the pandemic response.
The issue of trade is more nuanced, the officials said. They emphasized that there would be adjustments to the Trump-era China trade policy, which “will depend on internal consultations across government and consultations with partners in Europe and Asia.” But they noted that the tariffs put in place by the previous administration will remain for the time being while the policy is under review.
“On trade, we have maintained tariffs laid down over the last few years not because we think the trade war was particularly successful, but because we have to [proceed] very carefully, in consultation with partners and allies, [and] work through the sources of leverage we have on the economic front,” one of the officials said.
More broadly, Biden and his national security advisers believe that the biggest security challenges will emerge from the so-called great power competition between the U.S., China and Russia. As one of the officials told reporters on Wednesday, the “lion share” of history will be written in the region.
To that end, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has bulked up the unit on the National Security Council that coordinates U.S. policy toward the Asia-Pacific region. He appointed Kurt Campbell to oversee that team, which will aim to weave together several dimensions of U.S. policy — tech, trade, human rights, etc. — to counter China’s “exercise of sharp power” against its neighbors, one of the officials said. The other official said that while Trump had raised the possibility of shrinking the U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific, and though a global force posture review is ongoing, “it is unlikely” the Biden administration will follow that path.
“Across the board, there is a sense of a change in China over the last four to five years,” the official said. “It’s a pattern of behavior that is causing concern among [U.S.] friends and partners.” The official pointed to Chinese incursions along India’s border, economic attacks against Australia and South Korea, and provocations against Taiwan and in the South China Sea.
“The challenges are tough, but we’ve been here before,” the official added. “There have been periods in the past where Asia has counted us out and thought we were down for the count.” But the official said the administration is optimistic about ultimately being able to play a strong role in the region and find areas where the U.S. can work with China. One of the most important, and complicated, areas is building cooperation around climate change.
“The issues of theft of intellectual property, and access to markets, the South China Sea … those issues will never be traded for anything that has to do with climate,” climate czar John Kerry said last month. “But climate is a critical standalone issue that we have to deal on in the sense that China is 30 percent of the emissions of the world.”