China and the World

Time to talk

Biden phones Xi but bilateral ties stay tense


Biden spoke to Xi last Friday

The Biden administration is said to have lobbied its counterparts in Beijing this year to agree to a “red phone” hotline between the two governments, similar to the one that linked the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

In fact the Pentagon is already said to have a direct line to China for crisis calls. The talk of Washington this week was that Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made two calls to his counterpart in the People’s Liberation Army during the waning months of Donald Trump’s presidency to assure Beijing that the US military wouldn’t strike first.

A new hotline wouldn’t have been of much use this year either, with both governments preferring not to talk directly at the highest level. But there were signs of that changing last Friday, with the first conversation between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping since February.

A senior official from Biden’s team briefed the news site Axios that President Biden wanted to talk to Xi because of frustration that dialogue was being deliberately stalled at lower levels. There was no attempt to seek “specific outcomes or agreements”, the official added. But there was discussion of how to “set guardrails” on the relationship so that disagreements wouldn’t spiral into unintended confrontation.

Biden even floated the idea of a face-to-face meeting with Xi, the Financial Times reported, although the Chinese leader did not take up the offer.

Media outlets in the United States claim that Biden made the call after John Kerry failed to get the Chinese to engage on climate policy last week. The US climate envoy had flown to Beijing for talks but was only granted time with junior officials. Chinese vice premier Han Zheng and Wang Yi, the foreign minister, did agree to speak to him by video call but only to advise that it was impossible to talk further without changes in the wider relationship. Wang didn’t seem to have a problem meeting a delegation from the Taliban a few weeks earlier, Axios noted.

Kerry’s trip highlights a different approach to dialogue between the two governments. The US has been trying to separate issues like climate change from disagreements in areas such as trade, human rights and cyber spying. But Beijing won’t play ball, calling for a change in the tone of the overall relationship first.

Xi made the same point on Friday’s call, saying that building good ties wasn’t a “multiple choice question” but a “mandatory question”. Other Chinese officials have put it more bluntly, telling the Americans to stop criticising Beijing if they want a more productive relationship. “If we cannot resolve our differences, please shut up,” Qin Gang, China’s new ambassador to the United States, advised an online gathering arranged by the National Committee on United States-China Relations, a non-profit group.

It was telling that Xi was much more generous in his recap of a telephone call with Angela Merkel made shortly after his conversation with the American leader last week. Highlighting his “highly frequent and efficient exchanges” with the German chancellor, Xi said they “demonstrated the high-level mutual trust between the two countries”.

The problem for Sino-US ties is that mutual trust is so thin on the ground. Biden’s bid to reopen a personal channel with Xi also comes at a time when both sides are increasingly suspicious of the other.

One area getting new focus in the Chinese media is the risk of further confrontation over Taiwan, for instance, following reports in the FT that the Biden administration is considering a request from Taipei to change the name of the island’s representative office in Washington to include a reference to Taiwan (see WiC552 for how a similar renaming got Lithuania into trouble with the Chinese government).

The Chinese also responded angrily this week to a new defence alliance between Australia, the US and the UK, which will see the delivery of nuclear-powered submarines to the Australian navy. China’s foreign ministry was furious, warning of a regional arms race and accusing the Americans of using nuclear exports as a “tool in their geopolitical games”.

“Since Australia has become an anti-China spearhead, the country should prepare for the worst,” the Global Times warned darkly.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.