Biden calls Chinese President Xi Jinping about U.S.-China relationship

In their first conversation in seven months, President Biden spoke by phone with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday evening. This was a call initiated by Mr. Biden and motivated by what is essentially his exasperation that lower-level Chinese officials have been unwilling to hold substantive conversations with his administration. 

A senior administration official said that the president wants to keep the channels of communication open so the two countries do not unintentionally “veer into conflict.” The intent is to have a strategic conversation about how to manage competition between the two world powers. The official also said phone call was a test — to see if conversations at the very highest level would be more effective, given Xi’s consolidation of power.

Mr. Biden has repeatedly mentioned his personal familiarity with Xi. He told CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell in February, “I had 24-25 hours of private meetings with [Xi] when I was vice president, traveled 17,000 miles with him. I know him pretty well.”

But the two presidents have yet to hold a face-to-face meeting, and U.S.-China relations have been fraying for years. Biden administration officials have had a series of awkward encounters with their Chinese counterparts since their very first in-person meeting in March, in Anchorage, Alaska. During that session, Chinese diplomats exchanged angry words on camera in front of the press while they stood with both Secretary of State Blinken and National Security adviser Jake Sullivan. 

Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman’s visit to Tianjing in July was similarly tense.

“I don’t want to convey that diplomacy on specific issues has hit a wall,” a senior official said in response to a question about the state of affairs. The official described these earlier interactions as “unfruitful.”

U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry was in China last week to see if the two countries — the world’s top polluters — could broker a deal on the shared concern regarding climate. A day earlier, China’s foreign minister had rhetorically linked Beijing’s potential willingness to cooperate on climate change with the overall U.S.-China relationship.

The Biden administration believes that much of these antics are simply for China’s domestic propaganda purposes. The senior administration official stated that Chinese officials are simply reading talking points in order to perform for their bosses during their interactions, and they have no actual ability to negotiate.

“They’re trying to see if we’ll blink,” the senior administration official said.