US and China flags waving in the wind. 3d illustration (Photo by Gil C from Shutterstock).

by Paul Handley/Jerome Cartillier

Joe Biden pressed Chinese leader Xi Jinping over human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang late Wednesday in their first call since the new US president took office on January 20, according to the White House.

Setting the stage for what could extend the contentious relationship between the two superpowers, Biden offered Xi his “greetings and wellwishes” for the Chinese people on the occasion of the Lunar New Year celebrations, the White House said in a statement.

But, laying his own groundwork for Washington-Beijing ties after four tumultuous years under predecessor Donald Trump, Biden immediately challenged his counterpart over China’s projection of power in the Indo-Pacific region, the crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong and the oppressive treatment of millions of Muslim Uighurs in the Xinjiang region.

In the call Biden told Xi that his priorities were to protect the American people’s security, prosperity, health and way of life, and to preserve “a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the White House said in a statement on the call.

Specifically, 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 said.

The two leaders also spoke about the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and weapons proliferation.

“Biden committed to pursuing practical, results-oriented engagements when it advances the interests of the American people and those of our allies,” the White House said.

In Beijing officials confirmed the phone call, with state media reporting simply that the two sides “exchanged in-depth views on bilateral relations and major international and regional issues.”

Trump’s unilateral approach

It was not Biden’s first interaction with Xi; the two met when Biden was vice president in the 2009-2017 administration of president Barack Obama.

But Biden used the phone call to set his own tone for bilateral relations, which became deeply strained under Trump.

Trump took strong unilateral trade actions against China in an unsuccessful effort to close the US trade deficit with the country.

His administration also aggressively challenged China’s offshore territorial claims, and punished Chinese industry and researchers for  allegedly stealing technology.

Relations soured even further beginning a year ago when Trump accused Beijing of hiding the origin of the coronavirus, which has now killed more than 470,000 Americans.

Rebuilding alliances

Speaking on grounds of anonymity, a senior Biden administration official said the new president felt he was in a strong position to advance US interests with Xi.

While Trump severed relations with longstanding allies for a go-it-alone approach to Beijing, Biden has used his first three weeks in office to rebuild those relationships as a basis for a more collective approach.

Another US official said that Biden “found merit” in Trump’s approach of intense strategic competition towards China.

There is a need to assume that approach in every facet of the bilateral relationship, with every instrument of US power.

On the other hand, the official said, Trump’s eschewing partners and his chaotic implementation of policy fell into China’s hands.

In his first weeks in office Biden’s administration reaffirmed its support for Taiwan and for Japan’s territorial claim on the Senkaku Islands, which China calls the Diaoyu islands.

Tariffs to remain in place

In a visit to the Pentagon earlier Wednesday, Biden made clear he would not ease off militarily on China. He announced a new Defense Department task force on China which would quickly review all facets of the US security approach to the country.

“We need to meet the growing challenges posed by China to keep peace and defend our interests in the Indo-Pacific and globally,” Biden said.

The administration officials said that Washington would continue to apply targeted sanctions against Chinese individuals and entities for intellectual property theft, and tighten China’s access to sensitive technologies.

But, they emphasized, the approach will be to work in concert with allies.

They also said that Biden would not move quickly to change the hefty tariffs Trump placed on imports from China.

Any changes to US trade policy “will not be immediate, and in the meantime we are not lifting the tariffs,” said one official.

“We will keep them in place until we are ready to roll out with an affirmative trade strategy” that can be executed with allies, the official said.


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