Joe Biden has held his second call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping since becoming US president in an effort to break an impasse in the relationship between the countries after two rounds of top-level meetings produced little progress.
The White House said the two leaders had a “broad, strategic discussion” and that Biden had “underscored the United States’ enduring interest in peace, stability, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and the world”.
The pair had also discussed the “responsibility of both nations to ensure competition does not veer into conflict”, the White House said. The discussion was held on Thursday evening in Washington.
Biden requested the call after the White House concluded that the Chinese officials who met their US counterparts this year were “unwilling to engage in serious or substantive conversations”, according to a senior US official.
“What we’ve gotten is the usual talking points, which are more designed for propaganda purposes,” the official said ahead of the call. “President Xi has really centralised power in some pretty marked ways [so] it’s quite likely that engagement at the leader level is really what’s needed to move the ball forward.”
Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, and Jake Sullivan, national security adviser, met Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, and Wang Yi, foreign minister, in March for talks in Alaska that included a public spat. Wendy Sherman, deputy secretary of state, held a follow-on meeting with Wang and lower-level officials in Tianjin last month.
Biden has not met Xi since he entered the White House, reflecting the dismal state of Sino-US relations and the impact of the pandemic in limiting foreign travel for both leaders.
The US president has taken a much more hawkish stance than most experts had expected and has strongly rebuked Xi and China over everything from its crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong to the treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
The US official said the diplomatic encounters that the Biden administration has had with China “have not been very fruitful”. She said the Tianjin meeting was marred by China tweeting criticism of the US while the officials met behind closed doors — a breach of protocol described as “antics” designed for domestic propaganda purposes.
“These officials are basically reading talking points with . . . no ability to manoeuvre and are performing for one another and for the bosses,” said the official. She added that the problem had been amplified as officials prepare for China’s 20th party congress next year at which Xi is expected to receive a third term as party leader.
“Given the centralisation of leadership, really the elimination of collective leadership, it really just increases the importance of talking to Xi Jinping and . . . testing the proposition of whether he has more room to manoeuvre.”
Chinese officials blame the US for the impasse and argue that Biden’s continuation of hardline policies inherited from the Trump administration is blocking progress on issues in which the two rivals’ interests are aligned, such as climate change. Ahead of a meeting between Beijing and Washington’s climate envoys last week, foreign minister Wang Yi said “the ball now is in the US court”.
Evan Medeiros, an Asia expert at Georgetown University and a former top adviser to former president Barack Obama, said the call was a critical step that could pave the way to an in-person meeting.
“In such a competitive relationship, leader-level diplomacy is an essential component to managing competition well,” said Medeiros. “It’s been seven months, and seven hard ones for US-China. It’s time for the leaders to grab the reins again.”
The Biden administration has been discussing the idea of a meeting with Xi at the G20 meeting in Italy in October but Chinese media has suggested he may only attend the event virtually.
Additional reporting by Tom Mitchell in Singapore