Biden and Xi speak for first time since November summit amid global tensions

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Washington
CNN
 — 

President Joe Biden spoke on the phone with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Tuesday, marking the first conversation between the leaders since their historic in-person summit in November and the latest in ongoing efforts by US and Chinese officials to defuse tensions between the two superpowers.

The call comes amid heavy global turbulence – the ongoing wars in Gaza and Ukraine, as well as North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, were topics of discussion. Other issues that have strained the Washington-Beijing relationship also came up, including Taiwan, China’s recent provocations in the South China Sea and Beijing’s human rights abuses.

The two leaders also discussed a number of issues where US and Chinese officials see room for cooperation, including countering narcotics, the fast-developing world of artificial intelligence and climate change, according to a White House readout.

The White House described the one-hour-45-minute conversation as “candid and constructive” on a range of issues on which the leaders agreed and disagreed. Biden stressed the need to maintain “peace and stability” across the Taiwan Strait and he also raised his concerns over China’s support for Russia’s defense industry, the White House added.

China’s Foreign Ministry also said the two leaders had a “candid and in-depth exchange.” In the call, Xi characterized US-China relations as “beginning to stabilize,” but he warned that “negative factors” had been growing and required “attention from both sides,” a ministry readout said.

Biden noted his worries about China’s trade tactics that the White House said harm American workers and emphasized that the US will do what it must to prevent “advanced US technologies from being used to undermine our national security, without unduly limiting trade and investment.”

“The two leaders welcomed ongoing efforts to maintain open channels of communication and responsibly manage the relationship through high-level diplomacy and working-level consultations in the weeks and months ahead,” the readout stated, noting Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to China.

Biden also expressed concerns about TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese parent company ByteDance. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters that Biden discussed House-passed legislation that would require TikTok to be spun off from ByteDance and emphasized that it was an American national security issue.

Xi, for his part, called for the two sides to value peace, prioritize stability and honor their commitments to each other – an apparent reference to Chinese officials’ concerns about American tech and trade restrictions on China that they see as at odds with Washington’s assurances that it does not want to decouple the two nations’ economies.

Beijing’s heightened attention on those restrictions, which include a range of controls targeting China’s access to high-end, dual-use American technology, were reflected in Xi’s comments to Biden.

“If (the US) is adamant on containing China’s hi-tech development and depriving China of its legitimate right to development, China is not going to sit back and watch,” Xi said, according to China’s readout.

On Taiwan, which is a key point of friction between the two countries, Xi called the issue the “first red line” in the relationship and urged the US to act in accordance “with President Biden’s commitment of not supporting ‘Taiwan independence,’” the readout said.

China’s ruling Communist Party claims the self-ruling democracy as its own territory and has vowed to “reunite” with it, by force if necessary.

The Biden-Xi chat represents a follow-through on a simple commitment that Biden made publicly after meeting with Xi for multiple hours in Woodside, California, last fall: That, moving forward, the two leaders would pick up the phone and call each other more often, with an eye towards preventing potentially dangerous misunderstandings between two of the most powerful countries in the world.

A senior administration official previewing the call was quick to note that despite the great lengths to which both countries have gone to over the last year to de-escalate historic high tensions in US-China relations, a phrase Biden had uttered after his summit with Xi still remains operable: “Trust but verify.”

“I don’t think we ever really take the Chinese at their word when they say they will or will not do something. It is about verifying, as the president says,” the official told CNN when asked about Xi’s pledge that Beijing will not interfere in the US’ 2024 election. “Verifying the results we see, the actions we see, and then continuing to underscore and press on what our concerns are.”

That fraught dynamic was underscored during November’s summit when Biden – after underscoring the constructive nature of his meeting with Xi – told a CNN reporter that he would still refer to the Chinese leader as a dictator. The label, which Biden had previously used to describe Xi, quickly drew the ire of the Chinese government, and marked an awkward end to what was a momentous meeting between the two leaders.

The Biden administration plans to continue stressing to Beijing the US’ grave concerns about Chinese efforts to hack US critical infrastructure, the official said.

CNN reported exclusively in January that Xi had told Biden when they met in November that China would not interfere in the US presidential election, and that that assurance had also been reiterated by the Chinese foreign minister to Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

The conversation Tuesday was meant to serve as a “check in” on the progress made over the last year in those areas, the official said.

Biden also raised concerns in the call about China’s “support for Russia’s defense industrial base and its impact on European and transatlantic security.” His comments came on the heels of Xi’s recent pledge to “strengthen strategic coordination” between China and Russia on a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this year.

While China has shied away from publicly providing lethal aid to Russia to assist in its invasion of Ukraine, US officials have raised concerns that China’s economic support for Russia has allowed the country to rebuild its defense industrial base. The Chinese readout noted that the two leaders “exchanged views on the Ukraine crisis.”

“China, of course, is a sovereign country, it will make its own decisions about its relationships, but quite concerned about the direction of travel on this one, and I’m certain it will come up,” the senior US administration official said Monday ahead of the call.

Biden and Xi last spoke on the phone in July 2022.

“We would hope there would be a chance for another in-person meeting” in the near future, the senior administration official said.

In a significant mark of the Biden administration’s ongoing engagement with Beijing, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is scheduled to visit China later this week, where she’ll meet with her Chinese counterparts in her second visit to the country as Treasury secretary.

Yellen is scheduled to make two stops, traveling to Guangzhou and Beijing, for meetings with economists, students and members of the business community. A Treasury official told reporters Monday she planned to have frank discussions on what the administration considers “unfair” trade practices from China.

The Treasury secretary has vocally warned of the threat China’s overcapacity poses to the global economy, but has also cautioned that decoupling with the manufacturing juggernaut would be “disastrous” for the US.

China in recent days has signaled it will will push back against American concerns about industrial overcapacity, with a commentary in state media Xinhua on Tuesday calling those a “pretext for certain Western countries to poison the environment for China’s domestic development and international cooperation.”

In addition to Yellen, other US officials have spoken with their Chinese counterparts in 2024, demonstrating just how critical the administration sees its bilateral relationship with the country.

In January, Sullivan met with the Chinese foreign minister in Bangkok, and Blinken met with the Chinese official in Munich in February. Blinken is also set to travel to China himself “in the coming weeks,” the senior administration official told reporters Monday, while Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is expected to participate in a call with China’s minister of defense “soon.”

This story has been updated with additional developments on Tuesday.

CNN’s Simone McCarthy, Sam Fossum and Arlette Saenz contributed to this report.

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