US president Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping have spoken in their first phone call for seven months, amid continuing frustrations over attempts to find common ground.
During the 90-minute call, which was initiated by Biden, the two leaders discussed their shared responsibility to ensure competition does not “veer into conflict”, according to a transcript of the conversation from the White House.
A White House statement said the two leaders had “a broad, strategic discussion” including on “areas where our interests converge, and areas where our interests, values and perspectives diverge.” It said Biden and Xi agreed to engage “openly and straightforwardly”.
China’s state media said the conversation was “candid” and “in-depth”, adding that Xi said US policy on China imposed great difficulties on relations between the two.
It said the future of the world depended on the two countries could handle their relationship well. “This is the question of the century which the two countries must answer,” it said.
The Chinese report added that both sides agreed to maintain frequent contact and to ask working-level teams to increase communications. The conversation also focused on economic issues, climate change and Covid-19, according to a US official.
“President 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 nations to ensure competition does not veer into conflict,” the White House statement said.
There has been ongoing frustration in the US that efforts to find common ground have so far been fruitless. The US-China relationship sank to its lowest point in decades between an increasingly authoritarian Xi and the previous US president, Donald Trump.
Biden’s administration has appeared to seek areas of cooperation – like addressing the climate crisis – while maintaining opposition to other aspects of China’s conduct. Major issues of contention remain, including human rights abuses in Xinjiang and the crackdown on Hong Kong, cybersecurity breaches originating in China, its handling of the pandemic, and trade practises the White House has labelled “coercive and unfair”.
China’s increasing aggression in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, and the growing presence of the US and its increased support of Taiwan, has also increased concerns over the prospect of conflict.
Recent efforts to progress relations have stalled. Last week John Kerry met with China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi. Kerry told reporters he had urged Wang and the Chinese delegation to do more on the climate crisis, which was more important than politics.
Wang, however, countered that bilateral climate cooperation “cannot be separated from the wider environment of China-US relations”.
He said the US saw the two sides’ joint efforts against global warming as an “oasis”. “But surrounding the oasis is a desert, and the oasis could be desertified very soon.”
A high level meeting in March including Wang, China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi, US secretary of state Antony Blinken and US national security adviser Jake Sullivan also descended into hostile public rebukes.
According to the White House, Biden initiated Thursday’s call, which was the first since Biden’s inauguration. A senior administration official told the Associated Press the White House had been unsatisfied with early engagements with the Chinese.
The official, who was not authorised to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said White House officials were hopeful that Xi hearing directly from Biden could prove beneficial.
The White House official said Biden made clear to Xi that he had no intention of moving away from his administration’s policy of pressing China on human rights, trade and other areas where it believes China is acting outside international norms.