Xi-Biden phone call ‘anchor for stabilizing ties,’ signals willingness to manage tensions despite growing divergence
Published: Apr 03, 2024 06:08 PM
China US Photo:VCG

China US Photo:VCG

On Tuesday evening, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke with US President Joe Biden on the phone at the latter’s request. Experts view the conversation as a continuation of the San Francisco vision as both sides have expressed a desire for further cooperation and managing differences. It also reflected that the current anchor of stability in China-US ties amid growing negative factors is the smooth communication mechanism between the top leaders. 

Analysts said the calls between the Chinese and US heads of state once again supported the judgment that, despite differences, there is a will in Beijing and Washington not to let the relationship slip off the bottom edge.

According to the readout published by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the two presidents held a “candid and in-depth” exchange of views on China-US relations and issues of mutual interest. President Xi noted that his San Francisco meeting with President Biden last November opened a future-oriented San Francisco vision. Over the past months, their officials have acted on the presidential understandings in earnest. The China-US relationship is beginning to stabilize, and this is welcomed by both societies and the international community. On the other hand, the negative factors of the relationship have also been growing, and this requires attention from both sides.

Multiple “firsts”

The term “negative factors” appears for the first time in the readout of the Chinese side on summits or dialogues between Xi and Biden. It shows the divergences that the US had either created or magnified have grown to a degree that demands public acknowledgment and serious consideration, Lü Xiang, research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times. “Yet in the phone call, both sides expressed the wish to prevent negative factors from influencing the general stability of bilateral ties,” Lü added. 

Xi also, for the first time, underlined three overarching principles that should guide China-US relations in 2024:

“First, peace must be valued. The two sides should put a floor of no conflict and no confrontation under the relationship, and keep reinforcing the positive outlook of the relationship. Second, stability must be prioritized. The two sides should refrain from setting the relationship back, provoking incident or crossing the line, so as to maintain the overall stability of the relationship. Third, credibility must be upheld. The two sides should honor their commitments to each other with action, and turn the San Francisco vision into reality.”

The principles stresses that China values peace and stability, while looking forward to seeing positive statements from the US being translated into action. “Overall stability” is also new in the readout on the Chinese side, indicating that China is more realistic and confidence in ties with the US – striving for peace and stability in the big picture, while not being afraid of competition and rivalry on specific issues if necessary, Shen Yi, a professor at Fudan University, told the Global Times.

Xi stressed that strategic perception is always fundamental to the China-US relationship, just like the first button of a shirt that must be put right. This is the first time that Xi used this metaphor to talk about China-US ties, Shen said. 

This shows how China understands and defines the framework of China-US ties. While the US is haggling over every ounce of divergence, China steps to the next level and sees the ties from a more systematic and macro perspective. It sent a clear signal to the US that having a right strategic perception toward China is the first step to make a difference in its China ties for the better. “If the first button of a shirt is wrong, all that follows will be wrong,” Shen noted.

During the telephone dialogue, Biden said the US will send Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to visit China shortly to strengthen dialogue and communication, avoid miscalculation and promote cooperation, so as to advance the relationship on a stable path and jointly respond to global challenges. The Chinese side welcomed visits, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry readout.

Following the Xi-Biden phone call, it was announced on Wednesday that US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen will visit China from April 4 to 9.

This marks the first time a specific arrangement of personnel visits in Xi and Biden’s dialogue. Shen said it indicates a more mature and stable China-US relationship, stressing that maturity and stability do not necessarily equate to a much friendlier relationship, in which China has to accept every single requirement from Washington, rather, it means the two sides are at equal position, and should be capable of managing differences while fostering cooperation simultaneously.

“In general, the phone call can be viewed as a positive one. Both sides expressed the wish for stabilizing bilateral relations, managing differences, expanding cooperation, and that a stable and predictable China-US relationship is in the interests of both sides. This message was conveyed very clearly in this conversation between the top leaders,” Li Haidong, a professor at the China Foreign Affairs University, told the Global Times on Wednesday.

Li added that both countries acknowledged that disagreements did exist and had even increased. But with the call, China and the US expressed their hope to better manage differences and not let the issues explode.

US duplicity remains  

“The timing of the call took place after the results of primary elections in two parties were almost settled, but before the next round of fiercer electoral processes. The conversation displayed both sides’ hope that China-US relations will not be influenced or jeopardized by US partisan politics, but could be rooted in long-term common interests,” Li told the Global Times.

Right before the call, the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) Chair of the Board of Trustees Laura Rosenberger arrived in Taipei on Sunday for a weeklong visit. Meanwhile, the US and the Philippines are gearing up for fighter exercise over the South China Sea, while also boosting their bilateral interactions on multiple levels.

Yet, from the readout on the US side, apart from touching slightly upon the content of the dialogue, “the US left an impression that it wants to pass the buck to China for the divergences and tensions between the two sides by portraying itself as a role that actively engaged with China,” Li said. 

The US termed the dialogue as a “candid and constructive” one, stating that the two leaders welcomed ongoing efforts to maintain open channels of communication and responsibly manage the relationship.

On the other hand, the White House readout devoted more space to disagreements. It said Biden reiterated the US’ position on the Taiwan question and the South China Sea, raised concerns over “the PRC’s support for Russia’s defense industrial base,” and “unfair trade policies and non-market economic practices.”

In response to Biden mentioning the issues of Ren’ai Jiao, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Xizang in the phone call with Xi and urging China to stop supporting Russia in the Ukraine crisis, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said on Wednesday that China has indisputable sovereignty over Nansha Qundao (Nansha Islands) and their adjacent waters. The root cause of Ren’ai Jiao is that the Philippines has broken its promise, attempting to build permanent outposts on China's uninhabited islands so as to realize permanent illegal occupation there. The US is not a party to the South China Sea affairs and should not intervene in issues between China and the Philippines.

Regarding the Ukraine crisis, the spokesperson said that China's position is consistent, clear and transparent. There is a danger that this crisis will worsen and escalate. We should push for de-escalation and end this war through negotiations, not armed conflict. China is not the creator or party to the Ukraine crisis and has not provided lethal weapons and equipment to any party in the conflict. We have not and will not do anything to profit from it. Other countries should not smear and attack the normal state-to-state relations between China and Russia, should not harm the legitimate rights and interests of China and Chinese companies, and should not unreasonably blame China and provoke camp confrontation.

The US sometimes pretends to be a gentleman in its diplomatic rhetoric but acts like a villain, and this two-faced nature is apparent to many countries, including China, Li said. 

Therefore, it is necessary for us to urge the US to honor its commitments to China, and reduce negative factors affect the stability of relations between the two countries, Li noted. 

US needs China more 

As the phone call took place at the request of the US, observers believe this fact mirrors that the US needs China more amid the problems Washington has to confront both at home and abroad. 

Frankly speaking, everyone knows that nowadays the US is deeply trapped in the conflicts in both Gaza and Ukraine. It's crystal clear that Washington cannot afford a deteriorating situation in the Taiwan Straits or to foot the bill for forces which are making waves for “Taiwan independence.” That's why President Biden made his "no support for Taiwan independence" promise again in the call. While at the same time, China pays more attention on actions rather than words, and Beijing would be more satisfied if Washington can publicly support for the peaceful reunification and stop arms sales to the island, Shen told the Global Times.

During their conversation, President Xi stressed that the Taiwan question is the first red line that must not be crossed in China-US relations. Biden said the US follows the one-China policy, and does not support "Taiwan independence." Xi urged the US side to translate President Biden's commitment into concrete actions.

Analysts said the US needs China's cooperation in various important areas such as fentanyl control, climate change, artificial intelligence, green-energy transition and financial stability.