The senior Biden administration official told reporters that Biden pursued the conversation with Xi after it became clear that lower-level talks between U.S. and Chinese officials were failing to achieve breakthroughs on key issues. A leader-level discussion seemed necessary. During the call, the pair also discussed their ability to have private talks, the administration official said.
Chinese officials with whom U.S. representatives have engaged often stick solely to talking points, use harsh language or break diplomatic protocol, the senior Biden administration official said. The Chinese officials also sometimes try to link cooperation on important issues — such as battling pandemics or climate change — to areas where the two countries are at odds, such as human rights.
At times it has appeared that the Chinese officials’ performances are more for domestic political consumption, but it has meant little progress on key areas, the Biden administration official said.
“We don’t believe that is how responsible nations act, especially given the global importance of U.S.-China competition,” the Biden administration official said.
While largely avoiding specifics, the Biden administration official indicated that those areas of discussion where the U.S. wants to see more progress include cybersecurity, China’s disputed maritime claims, its oppression of Muslim minorities and potentially the future of its nuclear program.
The two leaders discussed economic issues, the senior Biden administration official said, but Xi did not make a specific ask of Biden, such as requesting he lift U.S. tariffs.
Above all, however, the goal of the call was to convey that Biden has a complex, non-binary view of the U.S.-Chinese relationship.
Biden has repeatedly said the United States will compete with China but that he wants to make sure that competition doesn’t lead to conflict. At the same time, Biden believes it’s possible to compete with China while also cooperating with it on certain areas of mutual interest.
It’s not clear that Chinese officials get that Biden wants to compete and cooperate at the same time, the senior administration official said, one reason Biden decided to talk to Xi. Xi has centralized so much power in China that a leader-level call may have been the best way to take the relationship with the United States forward.
Biden wanted to lay out some guardrails for the relationship to avoid conflict, including maintaining open lines of communication, having substantive and honest discussions and avoiding linking issues.
The Biden administration anticipates that at some point the U.S. president will meet with Xi, possibly on sidelines of a major multilateral gathering in the coming months.