Inside Biden's latest call with China's Xi Jinping

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President Biden used a call with Xi Jinping on Thursday night to test whether personal diplomacy with the Chinese leader can make more progress than the meetings among subordinates, who have been snubbing and rebuffing Biden's aides.

Driving the news: The call was the first between Biden and Xi in seven months. Since Biden's election they had only spoken once previously, on Feb. 10.

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Behind the scenes: Biden had requested the call with Xi, "not seeking specific outcomes or agreements" but to "have a broad and strategic discussion about how to manage the competition between the United States and China," said a senior administration official shortly before the call.

  • Biden wanted to "test the proposition" that having these conversations at "the leader level will be more effective than what we have found below him," the official added.

  • The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly and talked on condition of anonymity, said Biden's goal was to establish a "steady state of affairs" between the U.S. and China — to "set guardrails" so that they have a "stiff competitive posture" without spiraling into unintended conflict.

Between the lines: The official said that "lower-level engagements [between Chinese and U.S. officials] have not been very fruitful. And, candidly, we've not been very satisfied ... with our interlocutors' behavior."

  • Top Chinese officials have snubbed and lectured top Biden aides, and Beijing has used Biden's botched withdrawal from Afghanistan as a propaganda coup — to elevate doubts about the competence and staying power of liberal democracies in general, and the U.S. in particular.

  • When climate envoy John Kerry visited China last week, senior Chinese officials emphatically rejected Biden's proposal to deal with climate cooperation as a freestanding issue, apart from other, more contentious matters.

  • Worse, they would only meet speak with Kerry by video call, sending a junior official to meet the former secretary of state. (These Chinese officials had no problem, however, meeting a Taliban delegation in person just weeks earlier).

  • This follows the March summit in Alaska, where top Chinese officials hectored Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan in front of the news cameras — breaking with agreed-upon protocol.

Biden has long preached about the power of personal diplomacy. Confidants say he feels he has an almost unique ability to shape events through his deep relationships with world leaders. But he's got little to show for it so far with China.

  • The Biden administration has spoken in broad strokes about its plans to deal with Beijing — a "whole-of-government approach," lots of coordination with allies — but has made little tangible headway thus far. Officials say they're still reviewing their China strategy.

The details: The call ran for around 90 minutes and since they were talking late into the evening, Biden sat in the Treaty Room in the White House residence, according to the same senior administration official, speaking shortly after the call.

  • The official described the tone of the call as "familiar," "respectful" and "candid." They discussed the Biden administration's complaint that Chinese officials have been "playing for the press" rather than engaging seriously in negotiations, the official said.

  • Biden sought to explain U.S. actions towards China "in a way that [is] not misinterpreted as...somehow trying to sort of undermine Beijing in particular ways."

  • Biden is expected to reveal soon what he will do with the tariffs that former President Trump placed on Chinese imports. The two leaders discussed economic issues on the call but "there wasn't a particular ask [about tariffs] from President Xi," the senior official said.

The big picture: The Biden administration has publicly raised concerns about China's hacking of Microsoft and other U.S. entities, its continued aggression in the South China Sea, its menacing behavior towards Taiwan, and its continued human rights abuses in Hong Kong and ongoing genocide in Xinjiang.

  • Biden officials have said they envision a relationship that's "competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be and adversarial when it must be."

  • Chinese officials, however, have told the Americans that if they want a more productive relationship, including on issues like climate change, they should stop criticizing Beijing's behavior.

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