Biden and Xi have ‘candid’ call in first talks since San Francisco

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Joe Biden and Xi Jinping held a telephone call on Tuesday, in the first engagement between the US and Chinese leaders since they met in San Francisco in November in an effort to stabilise US-China relations.

The White House and Chinese foreign ministry said in separate statements following the call — their first since July 2022 — that the presidents had held “candid” discussions.

The White House said Biden stressed the need for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and the rule of law in the South China Sea. He also voiced concern about Chinese support for Russia’s defence industrial base and its “impact on European and transatlantic security”.

The Chinese foreign ministry said Xi told Biden that relations had stabilised since their meeting in San Francisco but that there were also rising “negative factors”. He cited US sanctions designed to “suppress” Chinese technological development and warned that Beijing was “not going to sit back and watch” without reacting, the ministry said.

China said Xi also warned that Taiwan was an “uncrossable red line”, and called on Biden to translate his commitment not to support Taiwanese independence into “concrete actions”.

The White House said the call lasted 105 minutes.

Biden also told Xi about his concerns about a Chinese company’s ownership of TikTok, according to John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesperson. The Senate is considering a bill to force ByteDance to divest the app. The House has already passed the measure.

Mike Pence, the former US vice-president, on Tuesday said he was launching a $2mn ad campaign to convince Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate majority leader, to advance the legislation passed by the House.

Pence said it would send the “wrong message” if American lawmakers could not come together to take action against the national security threat posed by allowing a Chinese company to own the app.

Ahead of the call, a senior US official said it was not designed to produce any big announcements, and that it was partly to check on the progress that had been made on agreements reached in San Francisco.

She said the leaders were also following through on a commitment to “maintain regular open lines of communication to responsibly manage competition and prevent unintended conflict” between the two powers. US Treasury secretary Janet Yellen is expected to visit China this week and secretary of state Antony Blinken will also soon travel to the country.

Biden voiced concern ahead of Yellen’s visit about what the US views as Chinese unfair trade practices. Yellen will visit Beijing and Guangzhou and will meet her Chinese counterpart, He Lifeng, in addition to Lan Fo’an, China’s finance minister, and People’s Bank of China governor Pan Gongsheng.

US-China relations last year deteriorated to their lowest level since the countries established diplomatic ties in 1979. There have been signs of stabilisation since the San Francisco meeting, but US and Chinese officials say the fundamental differences between the sides remain unchanged.

In one positive sign, US and Chinese military officers will this week meet in Hawaii, resurrecting a once-regular channel of communication that China halted in 2022 after Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker at the time, visited Taiwan.

The US official said the White House expected defence secretary Lloyd Austin would hold his first interaction with Dong Jun, China’s new defence minister, in the coming months.

The two leaders were also expected to have discussed the situation around the Second Thomas Shoal — a submerged reef in the Spratly Islands — in the South China Sea, where the US has accused China of engaging in aggressive behaviour against vessels from the Philippines.

The US official said the Biden administration was “increasingly concerned” that Chinese activity, including firing water cannons at the vessels, “could lead us closer to unintended consequences”.

The official said the two sides were also working on areas of co-operation, and that they hoped to launch “in the coming weeks” a bilateral dialogue on artificial intelligence as agreed at the San Francisco summit.

The US has welcomed some initial moves by China to crack down on the export of chemicals that can be used to illegally manufacture fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that has sparked a deadly drug epidemic in the US.

While the US is keen to keep relations from becoming rockier in an election year, China has been seeking to paint a picture of improving relations with Washington.

Last week, Xi met a group of 18 US business leaders and told them the countries’ tensions stemmed from “incorrect perceptions” in Washington about Beijing’s intentions, according to state news agency Xinhua. But alongside these gestures, China has maintained its hardline rhetoric against the US.

Last week, China’s Ministry of State Security spy agency reiterated its view that foreign consultancies often act on behalf of overseas intelligence services. Raids by the MSS on foreign consultancies have sent a chill through international investors in China.

Financial Times

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