President Joe Biden held his first call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on February 10, and it was about as contentious as could be.
According to the White House’s readout, Biden raised concerns over “Beijing’s coercive and unfair economic practices” as well as China’s “crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and increasingly assertive actions in the region, including toward Taiwan.”
That’s about as tense as introductory calls get. Instead of the usual niceties, Biden used the occasion to let Xi know what kind of behavior he would and would not accept from the Chinese. A senior administration official signaled as much in a preview call with reporters, saying that “the spirit with which [Biden] will come to the call tonight will be practical, hard-headed, clear-eyed.”
Xi didn’t take any of Biden’s criticisms lying down, though. Chinese state-run media reports about the call said the issues of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xinjiang were “China’s internal affairs, related to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” The US should “respect China’s core interests and act cautiously” on those issues, Xi reportedly told Biden.
Simply put, Biden told Xi to knock it off and stop being so brutal, and Xi told Biden to leave China alone and mind his own business.
That’s not how Donald Trump’s first call as president with Xi went. At the time, the US readout called their conversation “extremely cordial” and noted that Trump had agreed “at the request of President Xi” to affirm America’s commitment to the “one China” policy, under which the US recognizes Taiwan as part of China.
That has been US policy since 1979, but it was odd for the statement to specify Trump would abide by it because Xi asked him to.
Although the Trump years were defined by antagonism toward China on many issues, particularly trade, the first days of it clearly weren’t.
Nor was Trump himself ever particularly tough with Xi when it came to Hong Kong, where China has dramatically escalated its efforts over the last year to crush the pro-democracy movement and restrict the territory’s freedoms. Nor was he very assertive with regard to Xinjiang, the Chinese province where the government has detained millions of Uighur Muslims in concentration camps and forced them to undergo brutal psychological indoctrination programs, among other horrors.
Biden, on the other hand, made a conscious choice to push back on Beijing early and specifically addressed the human rights concerns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. However, he also vowed to cooperate with China when it suited not only American interests but also those of US allies — presumably Japan, South Korea, Australia, and others.
“The contrast between the call readouts of Biden’s first call and Trump’s first call with Xi are instructive,” said Brookings Institution senior fellow Ryan Hass. “Biden’s readout focused on a range of specific issues, whereas Trump’s emphasized personality and chemistry as key features of the call.”
Mainly for that reason, experts were happy to see how Biden approached his first conversation with Xi.
“It seems like the administration has tried to keep a clear, consistent tone in terms of being really upfront about the range of US concerns vis-à-vis Beijing’s behavior and about the competitive nature of the relationship overall, and the call reflects that,” said Sheena Greitens, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
Wednesday’s conversation underscores one of the earliest themes of Biden’s foreign policy: He won’t back down against major US adversaries, but he won’t just feud with them, either.
Biden has so far followed a consistent blueprint for facing America’s great-power competitors: The US will criticize and even punish China and Russia for human rights abuses, cyberattacks, and predatory economic practices, but it will also seek to cooperate with them when interests align.
Take Biden’s first call with Russian President Vladimir Putin in January. Biden pressed his counterpart on the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny — suspected by many to have been an assassination attempt ordered by the Kremlin — as well as the government’s arrest of hundreds of protesters who demonstrated in support of Navalny. Biden also affirmed America’s support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, which has been under threat since Russia invaded the country in 2014.
But those major policy disagreements didn’t stop the US and Russia earlier this month, when the two countries agreed to extend the last remaining nuclear treaty between them for another five years. Though Secretary of State Tony Blinken released a statement praising the move, he also said that “we remain clear eyed about the challenges that Russia poses to the United States and the world.”
“Even as we work with Russia to advance U.S. interests, so too will we work to hold Russia to account for adversarial actions as well as its human rights abuses, in close coordination with our allies and partners,” Blinken added.
Biden’s isn’t a fully confrontational approach, then, but rather a transactional one. There are many things on which Washington disagrees with Beijing and Moscow — and Biden will let them know about it — but there are also some areas where the adversaries can work together. Biden doesn’t want to shut the door on making progress in those areas.
It’s a fine message to send early on, but it’s also a tricky situation to navigate over the long term. Should China further antagonize Taiwan, or Russia launch more cyberattacks against the US, for example, Biden will have less room to pursue cooperation with those countries. The possibility for plunging ties remains.
But UT Austin’s Greitens believes calls like the one Biden just had with Xi could help mitigate such problems.
“Clarity on the strength and nature of US concerns is important to avoid misunderstanding,” she told me. “It’s best for the US and China to try to clearly delineate where they can cooperate, where it serves both countries’ interests, so that the cooperation is on a sound footing.”
It’s now Biden’s charge to ensure there is no misunderstanding. If he fails, two of America’s most important relationships could get worse.