(Bloomberg) — President Joe Biden urged China’s Xi Jinping to cooperate on key issues even as they spar on other topics, as his administration grows frustrated over what it perceives as a lack of seriousness in Beijing’s engagement with American officials.
The leaders of the world’s biggest economies spoke by telephone for 90 minutes on Thursday night, their first discussion since February. It came as the relationship becomes increasingly adversarial, with a senior administration official telling reporters that Biden initiated the call after meetings involving his cabinet officials and Chinese counterparts over the past months remained unfruitful.
“The two leaders had a broad, strategic discussion in which they discussed areas where our interests converge, and areas where our interests, values, and perspectives diverge,” the White House said in an account of the conversation. “They agreed to engage on both sets of issues openly and straightforwardly,” it added, saying they “discussed the responsibility of both nations to ensure competition does not veer into conflict.”
The U.S. has sought to separate issues like climate change from more contentious ones like trade, human rights and democracy in places like Hong Kong, while Beijing has linked them all together. It doesn’t appear like the call changed those dynamics.
Xi told Biden that the “China policy adopted by the United States for some time has caused serious difficulties” in relations, according to state broadcaster China Central Television. He said China was ready to cooperate on issues ranging from the global economy to climate change, but that it needed to be done “on the basis of respecting each other’s core concerns.”
Xi emphasized it was necessary for the two countries to bring relations “back on the right track,” saying that building good ties wasn’t a “multiple choice question” but a “mandatory question.” China said the two sides agreed regular communication between heads of state is important to boosting ties, while U.S. officials were noncommital on future exchanges.
Biden’s goal was to see whether personal engagement with Xi could set the relationship on a more serious path and help advance issues where both sides can cooperate, the official said. The tone between the two leaders was familiar and candid, and Biden took the opportunity to explain the intention behind U.S. actions that are sometimes misinterpreted by Beijing as a means to undermine China, the U.S. official said after the call.
The White House is still reviewing its overall China policy, including how to proceed with roughly $300 billion in tariffs facing Chinese imports and a trade agreement that was struck under the previous administration. The review could be concluded and its outcomes unveiled in the near future, the official said.
The U.S. official criticized China’s linking of transnational and bilateral matters, essentially holding hostage any progress on areas like climate change while demanding unrelated concessions in return.
That was clear when Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry held talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi last week. “China-U.S. climate change cooperation cannot be separated from the general environment of relations,” Wang said, according to the ministry. “The United States should meet China halfway and take positive actions to push relations back on track.”
Since the last Biden-Xi call in February, the two countries have repeatedly clashed over human rights, cybersecurity and an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, on which China has refused to cooperate. A face-to-face meeting is still a possibility on the sidelines of the Group of 20 meeting in Rome in late October, though the official said there were no concrete plans to announce.
Xi has not confirmed his attendance at the G-20 meeting, according to a government official and senior European diplomat. The official cited Covid-19 protocols as the reason he may not attend in person.
(Updates with Xi comment, in fourth paragraph and U.S. official comments throughout)
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