US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping have held their first phone call as leaders and appeared at odds on most issues, with particular focus on China’s “coercive and unfair economic practices, crackdown in Hong Kong and human rights abuses in Xinjiang”
While Mr Xi has called for “win-win” co-operation, Mr Biden said China is America’s “most serious competitor” and vowed to “out-compete” Beijing.
On Thursday (local time), Mr Biden told a bipartisan group of US senators at a meeting on the need to upgrade US infrastructure the United States must raise its game in the face of the Chinese challenge.
Mr Biden said he spoke to Mr Xi for two hours on Wednesday night and warned the senators: “If we don’t get moving, they are going to eat our lunch.”
“They’re investing billions of dollars dealing with a whole range of issues that relate to transportation, the environment and a whole range of other things. We just have to step up.”
The White House said Mr Biden emphasised to Mr Xi it was a US priority to preserve a free and open Indo-Pacific, a region where the United States and China are major strategic rivals.
He also voiced “fundamental” concerns about Beijing’s “coercive and unfair” trade practices, as well as about human rights issues, including China’s crackdown in Hong Kong and treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang, and its “increasingly assertive actions” in Asia, including toward Taiwan.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Biden also expressed concern about China’s lack of transparency over the coronavirus.
All the rights issues Mr Biden mentioned were ones Beijing has explicitly told his administration it should stay out of.
Mr Xi told Mr Biden confrontation would be a “disaster” and the two sides should re-establish the means to avoid misjudgments, China’s foreign ministry said.
Mr Xi maintained a hardline tone on Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan, calling them matters of “sovereignty and territorial integrity” he hoped Washington would approach cautiously.
China’s state broadcaster CCTV had a more positive spin on the conversation, saying saying Mr Xi acknowledged the two sides had their differences, and those differences should be managed, but urged overall cooperation.
CCTV said Mr Xi disagreed with Mr Biden’s characterisation of the situation in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, saying the issues are China’s internal affairs and concern Chinese sovereignty.
“The US should respect China’s core interests and act with caution,” Mr Xi said.
The call was the first between Chinese and US leaders since Mr Xi spoke with former President Donald Trump last March. Since then, relations between the world’s two biggest economies have plunged.
Mr Trump blamed China for starting the COVID-19 pandemic and launched a series of actions against China, including a trade war and sanctions against Chinese officials and firms considered security threats.