Xi Jinping’s Conversation with Joe Biden: US Bellicosity vs. Chinese Pragmatism – Analysis

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Op/Ed by Chris Devonshire-Ellis

Chinese President Xi Jinping and new US President Joseph R. Biden Jr. held a telephone call yesterday, just in time for the two leaders to wish each other a Happy Lunar New Year.

That said, the two parties seemed to follow existing patterns of rhetoric, with little if anything new of any substance occurring as a result. That is normal, with issues being laid out as walls of tiles of a new game of Mahjong.

The US media has tended to suggest the call a ‘confrontation’ between Biden and Xi, showing the new US President as tough on China. A selection of headlines and links are here:

Politico: Biden Confronts China’s Xi In First Call 

Washington Post: In First Call With China’s Xi, Biden Stresses US Commitment To Allies & Human Rights 

The Sydney Morning Herald: “Coercive and Unfair”, Biden Raises Thorny Issues In Xi Call 

New York Times: Biden Raises Concerns With Xi In First Call 

NPR: Biden Holds 1st Call With China’s Xi As Trade, Security Issues Loom 

Other global and Asian media were more pragmatic and less rigorous in tone, highlighting the differences in perceptions between the US and Asia:

South China Morning Post: Joe Biden and Xi Jinping Finally Speak On Lunar New Year’s Eve 

Financial Times: Joe Biden Has First Call With Xi Jinping Since Taking Office  

Straits Times: Joe Biden and Xi Jinping Hold First Talks Over Phone Since US Election

The Economic Times: Joe Biden Speaks With China’s Xi In Their First Call Since U.S. Election

A White House statement concerning the call can be read here.

The areas of concern as President Biden and Washington tends to see them revolve around several different areas:

Hong Kong

Calls for a democratic Hong Kong – when the territory has never had such a system, including under British rule.

Xinjiang & Human Rights

China faces real security issues in the region, which borders Afghanistan and Pakistan, areas of Islamic extremism, exorbitated to a large degree by US military operations there. The US continues to fight a war in Afghanistan and has done since 2001. China to some extent is suffering the repercussions of that and does not want Xinjiang infiltrated – hence the high security in the region. US finger-pointing is in part to deflect attention away from their own regional shortcomings and involvement.

Belt & Road Initiative

The US has concerns this is part of the development of a ‘Chinese Empire’. In reality, the program is building supply chains and upgrading infrastructure, partially to lessen Chinese dependence on US trade and supplies.

Trade

Much of the US-China trade war was aimed at spreading China’s manufacturing base across Asia. It was partially successful, but only as far as hurting US export manufacturers in China, who then either went bankrupt or had expenses imposed on them by having to relocate their operations to countries such as Vietnam. Nothing especially substantial has come of it – excepting a growing wariness of US trade sustainability.

Xi has an effective two years to work with Biden, who will be a one term President due to his age (78) and a final year where US domestic electioneering will take precedence over China issues. More interesting will be the developing Chinese relationship with Vice-President Kamala Harris as concerns building a longer-term strategic US-China policy.

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