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Phelim Kine and Mohar Chatterjee

Biden-Xi call renders a lackluster rehash of polarized policy positions

A large screen displays U.S. President Joe Biden, left, and China's President Xi Jinping during a virtual summit in November 2021 in Beijing, China. | Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s more than two-hour “in-depth and candid” phone meeting Thursday made no tangible progress on key policy issues, suggesting the bilateral relationship remains at a standstill because of worsening tensions around Taiwan, trade and a deadlocked diplomatic policy agenda.

The call was the fifth conversation between the two leaders since Biden took office, and it marked the latest effort to keep U.S.-China ties from backsliding by “maintaining open lines of communication to ensure that the United States and China manage our differences,” a senior administration official said.

That stalemate in the bilateral relationship imposes high expectations for an in-person meeting that the two leaders are negotiating for later this year.

There was “a conversation about a face-to-face meeting being worked out between the teams, so from my perspective there was very much a clear affirmative agenda that was put forward and agreed to by the leaders for the teams to work toward,” the official said.

The most pressing issue for the teams is managing tensions over Taiwan that have soared because of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s proposed visit to the self-governing island. A Chinese government readout of the call shows that Xi berated Biden about perceived U.S. violations of the U.S.-China Three Communiqués that spell out Washington’s relationship with the island. Beijing’s readout of the conversation contained an implicit threat against anyone seeking to stir up independence fervor on Taiwan: “Those who play with fire will perish by it.”

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To hammer that home, 30 minutes after the call concluded Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, tweeted a video featuring the Shanghai-based Chinese Communist Party propagandist Andy Boreham. Boreham is a New Zealand native whose Twitter feed is categorized as “China state-affiliated media.” Boreham titled the video “Taiwan is not a country and Nancy Pelosi should stay away.”

In Washington’s China policy community there is sympathy for Beijing’s view that Pelosi’s proposed trip is a gratuitously inflammatory gesture that will only worsen the U.S.-China relationship.

“Her presence in Taipei would not make any points that the United States has not made recently and repeatedly… and is distracting both sides from efforts to frame and stabilize their dangerous relations,” said Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks at her weekly press conference, July 14, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington. | Mariam Zuhaib/AP Photo

But hopes for a breakthrough at an in-person Biden-Xi meeting may be misplaced. The timing of the proposed meeting — after the autumn’s 20th Communist Party Congress, where Xi is widely expected to emerge with an unprecedented third term as a paramount leader — suggests that his motivations for meeting Biden may be more tactical than strategic.

“He wants Biden to meet him, and basically that will be a public announcement that, ‘hey, look, my legitimacy and my leadership has been recognized by the U.S. president,’” said Yun Sun, China program director at the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank. “I actually don’t believe that the Chinese are going to change their approach to issues that are contentious. I don’t think the Chinese are going to be less coercive on Taiwan, and I don’t think the Chinese will be less competitive or less bitter and hostile in regional competition.”

The Biden-Xi call touched on other issues in only the most general terms. Xi underscored the need for bilateral coordination on macroeconomic policies to keep global supply chains stable and to maintain food and energy security. Xi and Biden committed to unspecified follow-up on the issues of climate change and health security but didn’t outline timelines or objectives. The two leaders exchanged views on what the administration official described as “Russia’s war in Ukraine and the global impacts it is having,” but there was no hint that Biden sought to budge Xi from his “no limits” alliance with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Discussion of trade tensions linked to Trump-era tariffs imposed on $370 billion in Chinese imports also got short shrift. Biden limited his talking points on trade to “core concerns with China’s unfair economic practices,” the administration official said.

Biden sought Xi’s cooperation on counternarcotics, an urgent issue given the thousands of overdose deaths in the U.S. each year from illicit fentanyl made from Chinese raw materials. Xi’s readout made no mention of that issue and Beijing has refused to engage on it since national security adviser Jake Sullivan first raised it as a proposed bilateral cooperation point in November.

“President Biden also raised the need to resolve the cases of American citizens who are wrongfully detained or subjected to exit bans in China,” the official said.

That’s good news for the families of hundreds of U.S. citizens arbitrarily detained or unable to leave China because of exit bans who say their efforts to push both the Chinese and U.S. governments to get their loved ones home have hit a wall. Biden’s move to raise the issue with Xi reflects what Sullivan last month described as “a personal priority for both himself and for the president.”

But as with counternarcotics cooperation, it’s unclear whether the Chinese are interested.

“The label of arbitrary detention suits the US better than anyone else,” Liu, the Chinese spokesperson said in a statement earlier this month. “We urge the US to stop such hypocritical and preposterous performance and focus on correcting their own mistakes.”

Despite the challenges to meaningful progress on bilateral issues, the fact that the two leaders can still engage on them for up to three hours in one sitting confirms that the relationship is viable and that positive change remains possible.

“Although this latest call, like the four that preceded it, did not produce much in the way of meaningful deliverables, there is value in maintaining regular leader-to-leader exchanges,” Craig Singleton, senior China fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said in a statement. “As the U.S. and China confront serious economic headwinds, both Biden and Xi will face intensifying domestic pressure to stabilize the bilateral relationship, if for no other reason than to calm jittery investors who remain deeply skeptical about the health of the world’s two largest economies.”

Nicolle Liu contributed to this report.

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