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World Call between Biden and China’s Xi portends rocky road in post-Trump era

14:55  11 february  2021
14:55  11 february  2021 Source:   washingtonpost.com

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TAIPEI, Taiwan —After the first call between the leaders of the United States and China, the governments released accounts that diverged sharply in tone and focus. But both sides signaled they would not yield on the thorny issues of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, foreshadowing the areas that could generate protracted tensions in the post-Trump era.

a flag with an umbrella: Protesters hold up an umbrella and an American flag as they march through Hong Kong on July 14, 2019. Beijing’s erosion of Hong Kong’s promised freedoms has become a flash point in U.S.-China relations. © Kin Cheung/AP Protesters hold up an umbrella and an American flag as they march through Hong Kong on July 14, 2019. Beijing’s erosion of Hong Kong’s promised freedoms has become a flash point in U.S.-China relations.

In the call Wednesday evening U.S. time, Chinese leader Xi Jinping spoke in conciliatory tones about the importance of a healthy bilateral relationship, according to the Chinese state broadcaster. But Xi pointedly warned President Biden to “act prudently” on the three regions, where China’s forceful policies have drawn U.S. condemnation.

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Biden took a harder tack, telling Xi he had “fundamental concerns about Beijing’s coercive and unfair economic practices, crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and increasingly assertive actions in the region, including toward Taiwan,” according to the White House.

Following weeks of tough comments from senior U.S. officials, the president’s exchange with Xi underscored the deep differences between the two leading world powers that will entrench their contest in trade, technology, military prowess and a range of other areas for years to come.

[In first call with China’s Xi, Biden stresses U.S. commitment to allies and human rights]

China’s stern warning about Taiwan, a U.S.-backed, self-ruled democracy that China claims as its territory, has been a consistent message going back to the latter months of the Trump administration, when bilateral relations entered free-fall, according to Chinese analysts and U.S. scholars and business executives who speak with Chinese officials. Aside from seeking assurances that U.S. policy toward Taiwan would not change dramatically, these people say, China has low expectations that the new president would quickly adopt a much softer approach to China and offer changes that Beijing seeks, such as dropping President Donald Trump’s tariffs or his technology sanctions.

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“Taiwan is the first issue — always — more so than tariffs,” said Xin Qiang, deputy director of Fudan University’s Center for American Studies. “China wants to wait patiently to see what the U.S. will say and do in terms of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang. The struggle concerning those issues between China and the U.S. will shape the direction of the relationship in the upcoming four years.”

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Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo designated China’s crackdown on the region’s mostly Muslim population in Xinjiang as “genocide” in the final days of the previous administration, deeply enraging Beijing, and lifted State Department restrictions on interactions with Taiwanese officials. His successor, Antony Blinken, concurred with the genocide designation and has spoken forcefully in favor of supporting Taiwan. National security adviser Jake Sullivan has also publicly recommended the United States be prepared to “impose costs” on China for its crackdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and for its “bellicosity and threats” toward Taiwan.

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Aside from the three regions that China considers core national interests, Xi urged a restoration in relations — the “most important” in the world — and proposed a resumption of dialogue between the governments. Communication had all but broken down toward the end of Trump’s term, with only the countries’ trade representatives still talking.

[A U.S.-China detente under Biden? Beijing isn’t betting on it.]

Most Chinese state media framed the call, which came shortly before the Lunar New Year, a success. “The significance of the phone call today not only lies in that it has further promoted the personal communication between the two leaders, but also provided a sense of ritual to China-US relations and expresses mutual respect,” opined Hu Xijin, the influential editor of China’s Global Times tabloid. “Doing so on this special day for Chinese, I think is of considerable positive significance for realizing the goals of managing differences.”

China has been eager to restart dialogue and has waited for a call since the Jan. 20 inauguration. Its officials had informally floated the idea to send its top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, to Washington even earlier to meet with Biden officials, according to people with knowledge of the discussions. But the U.S. response was chilly as Biden and senior officials such as Blinken first spoke to U.S. allies and friends including Canada, Britain, Japan, Australia and India on calls that often touched on the Indo-Pacific region and China.

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Joe Biden, Xi Jinping are posing for a picture: Xi shakes hands with Biden in Beijing in 2013. U.S.-China relations have deteriorated sharply since then. © Pool New/Reuters Xi shakes hands with Biden in Beijing in 2013. U.S.-China relations have deteriorated sharply since then.

Unable to quickly secure meetings, Yang and Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai delivered public addresses over Zoom to the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations and the Carter Center, respectively. In both cases the officials dug in firmly on territorial issues and blamed the United States for single-handedly driving the downturn in relations. But they also have offered to cooperate on fighting the coronavirus and climate change, which they see as Biden priorities.

In recent months, particularly since the inauguration, a series of comments from the Biden administration has cemented the belief in Beijing that its relationship with the United States has changed fundamentally into one of competition.

[Trump administration declares China’s treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang ‘genocide’]

Zhao Tong, senior fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing, noted that Xi on the call quoted Biden’s post-election victory speech on the theme of “possibilities,” and that Chinese state media have highlighted the history between the two men. But those in policy circles in Beijing know that realistically it can only bide time, avert confrontation with Biden and seek limited cooperation, while it inevitably builds up national strength that can challenge that of the United States, he said.

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“China has traditionally felt confident it can shape the view of top U.S. individuals by building on personal relationships,” Zhao said. “But China has been a little disappointed so far. Biden’s rhetoric has been very tough, which is convincing the Chinese that we need to build our own capability. China is confident that over time, the balance of power is shifting.”

Senior administration officials on Wednesday outlined a U.S. strategy that would borrow some elements of Trump’s adversarial approach to China while rejecting his unilateral tactics.

The officials said Biden would also hold back on rolling back tariffs “right out of the gate” and would weigh new prohibitions on sensitive technology exports. Biden also announced a Department of Defense review on China-related military strategies on Wednesday, the same day a senior State Department official met with Taiwan’s envoy to Washington.

Taiwan foreign ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou said her ministry thanked the Biden administration for “continually demonstrating support for our country” since the inauguration and pledged Taiwan would continue to closely collaborate with Washington.

Inside China, most state media coverage of the call was heavily and selectively edited, and social media users seemed pleased that Biden sent Lunar New Year greetings to the Chinese people. A few posters who accessed foreign websites, presumably using virtual networking software to circumvent domestic censorship, expressed surprise to see the White House version of the readout and to find Biden in fact “lectured” China on sensitive issues about its periphery.

Policy thinkers in Beijing took a more realist view.

“The Biden administration does not have much interest and space to actively ease Sino-U.S. relations,” said Fu Suixin, research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies in a syndicated piece, as he lamented Washington’s positions on Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang. “Instead, it hopes to use a tough stance to seek psychological advantages and bargaining chips in its interactions with China.”

Anne Gearan in Washington and Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.

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The Daily 202: Biden builds back boring in town hall. That’s not a bad thing .
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