Joe Biden on Wednesday held his first call as president with Xi Jinping, pressing the Chinese leader about trade and Beijing's crackdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong as well as other human rights concerns. The two leaders spoke just hours after Biden announced plans for a Pentagon task force to review U.S. national security strategy in China and after the new U.S. president announced he was levying sanctions against Myanmar's military regime following this month's coup in the southeast Asian country.
A White House statement said Biden raised concerns about Beijing’s “coercive and unfair economic practices." Biden also pressed Xi on Hong Kong, human rights abuses against Uighur and ethnic minorities in the western Xinjiang province, and its actions toward Taiwan.
“I told him I will work with China when it benefits the American people," Biden posted on Twitter after the call.
China’s state broadcaster CCTV said Xi and Biden “exchanged greetings on the occasion of the Chinese New Year, and had an in-depth exchange of views on the bilateral relationship and major international and regional issues.”
Biden, who had dealt with the Chinese leader when he served as Barack Obama’s vice president, used his first three weeks in the White House to make several calls with other leaders in the Indo-Pacific region. He has tried to send the message that he would take a radically different approach to China than former President Donald Trump, who placed trade and economic issues above all else in the U.S.-China relationship.
With Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga late last month, Biden underscored the U.S. commitment to protecting the Senkaku Islands, a group of uninhabited islets administered by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing. In his call with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Biden emphasized the need for “close cooperation to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific.” And in his call with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week, the president highlighted that the two nations' alliance was essential to stability in the region, the White House said.
Top aides to Biden have repeatedly heard from Asia-Pacific counterparts who had become discouraged by Trump’s frequently sharp rhetoric aimed at allies, talk of reducing troop levels in South Korea and odd interactions with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, according to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private calls.
Allies in the region have made clear they want a more purposeful and steady approach to engagements going forward, according to the official.
To that end, Biden and other top administration officials have taken care in their initial interactions with their counterparts to look to the long game in resetting the relationships.
Biden used Wednesday's call to raise concerns about Beijing’s crackdown on activists in Hong Kong and about its policies affecting Muslims and ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. In the final hours of the Trump administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that the Chinese Communist Party had committed crimes against humanity against the predominantly Muslim Uighurs and other minority groups.
The White House also said Biden made clear his concern about Beijing’s increasingly “assertive” action with Taiwan. Beijing claims full sovereignty over Taiwan, even as the two sides have been governed separately for more than seven decades.
Days into Biden’s presidency, China dispatched warplanes close to the island. The U.S. Navy, in turn, last week sent a guided-missile destroyer through the waterway that separates China and Taiwan.
One area that Biden doesn’t appear ready to move quickly on is discontinuing Trump’s trade war with China, which led to tariffs on their steel, aluminum and other goods.
Biden plans to leave the tariffs in place as his administration conducts a top-to-bottom review of trade policy. Administration officials note that the president is still awaiting confirmation of his U.S. trade representative nominee, Katherine Tai, and his pick for commerce secretary, Gina Raimondo. Both are expected to play key roles in helping shape China trade policy.
Administration officials say Biden also wants to consult with allies in Asia and Europe before making decisions on tariffs.
Biden and Xi know each other well and have had frank exchanges.
Biden played host to then-Chinese vice president Xi during his 2012 visit to the United States. Biden used that visit to get a read of Xi and was blunt at moments, even raising concerns about Chinese theft of intellectual property and human rights abuses during a luncheon toast.
The following year, when Biden visited China, he publicly criticized Beijing for refusing to affirm that it would renew the visas of American journalists and for blocking the websites of American-based news media sites.
Biden has said he believes there are areas where the U.S. and China can work closely, such as addressing climate change and preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. But ultimately, Biden said recently, he expects the U.S.-China relationship to be one of “extreme competition” in coming years.