In their first conversation in seven months, President Biden spoke by phone with Chinese President Xi Jinping late Thursday night from the Treaty Room inside the White House residence. The roughly 90-minute call was initiated by Mr. Biden and motivated by what is essentially his exasperation that lower-level Chinese officials have been unwilling to hold substantive conversations during meetings with members of his administration.
A senior administration official told reporters that one of the challenges in U.S.-China interactions to date is that the sense that “they were playing for the press” and using the interactions with Biden administration officials as attempts to push propaganda rather than substance. The tone of Thursday night’s call was described as “respectful” while also frank and familiar.
The president reiterated that he wants to keep the channels of communication open so the two countries do not unintentionally “veer into conflict.” The intent of the call was to have a strategic conversation about how to manage competition between the two world powers. The official also said phone call was a test — to see if conversations at the very highest level would be more effective, given Xi’s consolidation of power.
Mr. Biden has repeatedly mentioned his personal familiarity with Xi.in February, “I had 24-25 hours of private meetings with [Xi] when I was vice president, traveled 17,000 miles with him. I know him pretty well.”
But the two presidents have yet to hold a face-to-face meeting, and U.S.-China relations have been fraying for years. It’s been seven months since Biden’s inauguration, and he still has not secured a China trade policy and many of the tariffs established by the Trump administration remain in place.
“The economic dimension of our policy remains under review and hopefully closing out in the not too distant future,” the senior administration official said.
When asked about trade issues, the senior administration official simply replied that Xi made no “ask” on that topic during Thursday’s call.
Biden administration officials have had a series of awkward encounters with their Chinese counterparts since their first in-person meeting in March, in Anchorage, Alaska. During that session, Chinese diplomats exchanged angry words on camera in front of the press while they stood with both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security adviser Jake Sullivan.
Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman’s visit to Tianjing in July was similarly tense.
“I don’t want to convey that diplomacy on specific issues has hit a wall,” a senior official said in response to a question about the state of affairs. The official described these earlier interactions as “unfruitful.”
U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry was in China last week to see if the two countries — the world’s top polluters — could broker a deal on the shared concern regarding climate. A day earlier, China’s foreign minister had rhetorically linked Beijing’s potential willingness to cooperate on climate change with the overall U.S.-China relationship.
The Biden administration believes that much of these antics are simply to serve China’s domestic propaganda purposes. The senior administration official stated that Chinese officials are simply reading talking points in order to perform for their bosses during their interactions, and they have no actual ability to negotiate.
“They’re trying to see if we’ll blink,” the senior administration official said.