Xi, Biden discuss how to manage rivalry in phone call

US President Joe Biden (left) talked with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping for the first time in seven months.
US President Joe Biden (left) talked with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping for the first time in seven months.PHOTOS: NYTIMES, EPA-EFE

BEIJING - Chinese President Xi Jinping and his United States counterpart Joe Biden spoke on the phone on Friday (Sept 10) – their first conversation in seven months – as they sought ways to stabilise the relationship between their countries.

During the call, which Beijing characterised as “candid, in-depth and extensive”, Mr Xi said both countries should  show “strategic courage and political resolve to push China-US relations back onto the right track of stable development as soon as possible”.

He pointed out that the bilateral relations were facing “serious difficulties”, attributing this to US policies toward China.

“Whether China and the United States can handle their relations well is of great concern to the future and fate of the world. It is the question of the century that the two countries must answer,” Mr Xi said, according to a Chinese statement of the call.

He added that cooperation would benefit both countries and the world, while confrontation would bring disaster.

The phone call, which was initiated by Mr Biden, is the first between both leaders since February.

Mr Biden’s message to the Chinese leader was that both sides needed to ensure that “competition does not veer into conflict”, according to a White House statement.

Both sides had a “broad, strategic discussion in which they discussed areas where our interests converge, and areas where our interests, values, and perspectives diverge”,  it said.

“This discussion, as President Biden made clear, was part of the United States’ ongoing effort to responsibly manage the competition between the United States and the PRC,” said the statement, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

Relations between both superpowers have worsened in recent months, with disputes over issues on human rights, the South China Sea, Covid-19 and climate change.

A senior US administration official had told reporters that the purpose of the call was to establish “guardrails” in order to manage the relationship responsibly.

It was also an attempt by Mr Biden to engage the Chinese leadership at the highest level as lower-level talks have not yielded substantive results, said the official.

Last week, US climate envoy John Kerry visited Tianjin city for climate negotiations but left largely empty-handed, having been told by top Chinese diplomats that climate cooperation would be contingent upon the health of bilateral relations.

On Friday, Mr Xi seemed to adopt a more conciliatory tone, saying both sides should continue to advance “coordination and cooperation” on climate change, fighting the pandemic and economic recovery.

Mr Li Shuo, senior climate adviser with Greenpeace in Beijing, said Mr Xi’s approach was a “notable” departure from the tone adopted by Chinese officials in Tianjin last week.

“But it’s too early to judge whether this is just a change in tone or will lead to a more substantive change in position,” he said.

Chinese international relations scholar Shi Yinhong was more pessimistic, noting that Mr Xi had put the blame for deteriorating relations squarely upon Washington.

“So by implication, for any significant improvement in ties to happen, the condition is for the US to change and give up its harmful policies toward China,” he said.

On the other hand, Washington has also repeatedly blamed Beijing’s actions for worsening relations, he said, adding that in reality, both countries are still at an impasse.

“This dialogue between leaders may seem more diplomatic and polite, but underneath not much has changed.”