The telephone call between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping on February 10 was a long time coming. Biden had received a congratulatory message from China’s president after winning election to the White House in November but there had been no direct contact between the two men. Indeed, Xi hadn’t spoken with a sitting US president since March last year, amid a difficult period in diplomatic relations.
Biden held back in making personal contact with Xi until last week (he spoke to more than a dozen heads of state before calling Beijing). And in Washington’s assessment of the conversation between the two men, he then talked tough, raising “fundamental concerns” over China’s “coercive and unfair economic practices, crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang and increasingly assertive actions”, including towards Taiwan.
The Chinese take on the call highlighted other areas of the conversation in which Xi warned that the two nations risked disaster if they couldn’t find ways to cooperate. He also made clear that he wouldn’t accept any interference from outsiders in Xinjiang, Hong Kong or Taiwan, Xinhua reported.
Yet as sections of China’s media noted, the discussion was a step forward from the dialogue (or lack of) with the Trump administration over the last year. And the call lasted for two hours, which is hardly a signal of an abrasive debate.
Biden also scored points in Beijing by rescinding Trump’s national security restrictions on TikTok and WeChat, and dropping a requirement that American universities publish their contractual arrangements with Chinese organisations such as the Confucius Institutes. All the same, most commentators aren’t expecting a sudden dismantling of Trump’s combative approach towards Beijing. Instead Biden is said to be taking his time over a reframing of relations, not least in trying to build a coalition with other nations on some of the key policy concerns.
Another part of his strategy is to refocus on domestic priorities. A day after the conversation with Xi, Biden called for a major round of investment in American infrastructure and clean energy. “If we don’t get moving, they are going to eat our lunch,” he told a group of US senators of the challenge from China. “They’re investing billions of dollars dealing with a whole range of issues that relate to transportation, the environment and a whole range of other things. We just have to step up.”
Most analysts still expect him to step back from the most dramatic of Trump’s efforts to drive a wedge into trade and investment between the two countries (in what was often described as the early stages of an effort at ‘decoupling’ their economies). For instance, there have been reports that Biden is reviewing the ban on semiconductor supplies to Chinese firms because of a shortage of microchips, which has been disrupting car production around the world.
Instead, the new administration is going to adopt a “small yard, high fence” in its technology policy, Caixin reported this week, protecting the technologies that are key to American national interests rather than following Trump’s more scattergun approach.
“Washington might give a free pass to Chinese apps that let you chat to friends or scroll through cat videos. But companies with products related to critical tech infrastructure may get kicked into the wilderness,” the magazine predicts.
Another man hoping to speak to the new US president is Ren Zhengfei, the founder of Huawei, one of the key targets of Trump’s trade embargo. “I would welcome such phone calls – and the message is around joint development and shared success,” he urged this month.
Huawei’s tech suppliers in the US were informed that another round of export licences were being revoked only a few days before Trump left office. Many appealed against the decision, hoping that the incoming administration will take a different line. But Huawei’s hopes for an end to the ban were looking forlorn last month when Gina Raimondo – Biden’s nominee for Commerce Secretary – said she knew of “no reason” why it shouldn’t remain on the restricted list.
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