Biden Speaks With Xi Amid Low Point in U.S.-China Relations

The call was only the second time the leaders had spoken since President Biden’s inauguration. The lack of communication was a measure of the rising tensions between the two countries.

By Zolan Kanno-Youngs and David E. Sanger

WASHINGTON — In their first conversation in seven months, President Biden spoke on Thursday with President Xi Jinping of China, expressing concern over China’s cyberactivities while arguing that the leaders of the world’s two largest economies could set aside their differences to work together on climate change.

The call amounted to a break in what experts have called one of the lowest points in the relationship between the two countries in decades. It was only the second time that the leaders have spoken since Mr. Biden’s inauguration; the lack of communication is a measure of the rising tensions between their nations as they seek to maneuver to limit the global influence of the other.

The call, which a senior administration official said lasted 90 minutes, came at a particularly delicate time. Tensions are growing over Taiwan and the South China Sea, and Mr. Biden is trying to rally the West in what he calls a battle between “autocracy versus democracy.” It also came less than two weeks after the United States completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan, where China has been interested in mining for commodities.

Even as Mr. Biden’s senior officials stressed the importance of engaging directly with Mr. Xi after months of stalled discussions, administration officials on Thursday evening gave remarkably few details from the call. Mr. Biden did push China to agree to a set of guardrails for policymaking while also emphasizing the need to mitigate climate change, officials said.

The discussion “was part of the United States’ ongoing effort to responsibly manage the competition between the United States and the P.R.C.,” according to a White House statement, using the abbreviation for the People’s Republic of China. Mr. Biden “underscored the United States’ enduring interest in peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and the world, and the two leaders discussed the responsibility of both countries to ensure competition does not veer into conflict.”

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    The official Chinese summary of the call said that Mr. Xi told Mr. Biden that the U.S. government’s policies toward China had strained relations, and that it was in both countries’ interests to avoid confrontation.

    “The policies that the United States has adopted toward China for some period of time have pushed Chinese-U.S. relations into serious difficulties, and this is out of step with the fundamental interests of both countries’ peoples and the shared interests of every country in the world,” Mr. Xi said, according to a summary of the call issued online by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. “Whether China and the United States can properly handle mutual relations is a question for the century that concerns the fate of the world, and both countries must answer it.”

    Mr. Xi listed climate change, pandemic prevention and control, and economic recovery as some of the areas where Beijing and Washington should cooperate, according to the Foreign Ministry. But he noted that the effort should be premised on “respect for each other’s core concerns and on appropriately managing differences.”

    The call between the two leaders — their first substantive conversation since February — showed the sense of urgency in the White House to compete with Beijing and establish policymaking expectations.

    Before the call in the Treaty Room, senior administration officials said the conversation became necessary after previous discussions had erupted in criticism and ended with few commitments to collaborate.

    A meeting in March between China’s top diplomats and senior Biden administration officials, including Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, ended in denunciations and without any joint statement on an intention to collaborate. A trip by Wendy R. Sherman, the deputy secretary of state, to China in July similarly ended with little sign of progress.

    During the most recent attempt to collaborate on addressing climate change, Chinese officials told John Kerry, the U.S. climate envoy, in Tianjin last week that the escalating tension would hinder any potential cooperation.

    “Without political will at the very top of both governments, any stabilization of the relationship, any progress toward work of mutual concern like climate or the pandemic, is impossible,” said Myron Brilliant, the executive vice president and head of international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “It starts with the two leaders agreeing to a framework for working together on areas of shared concern.”

    Mr. Brilliant said the next phase of dialogue between the two leaders would need “to be backed by more concrete steps toward engagement in areas where the two sides also have differences and challenges,” such as trade and technology.

    Mr. Biden shared concerns with Mr. Xi over cybersecurity, two months after the administration accused the Chinese government of breaching Microsoft email systems used by the world’s largest companies and the United States rallied a broad group of allies to condemn Beijing for cyberattacks around the world.

    The effort by the Biden administration to organize denunciations from multiple nations angered the Chinese Communist Party. But the Foreign Ministry’s summary of the call said that both countries “agreed that it was very important for the leaders of China and the United States to engage in thorough communication” and that they would maintain regular contact.

    The conversation took place weeks after experts gathered by the director of national intelligence, Avril D. Haines, reported that they were unable to conclude whether the coronavirus had escaped from a laboratory or arisen from a mutation of the virus in the animal population. The inconclusive nature of the review is bound to sustain competing theories over how the coronavirus emerged — and the degree to which Beijing, which has blocked access to key researchers, bears responsibility.

    Chris Buckley contributed reporting.

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