U.S. President Joe Biden in first direct contact with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping

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U.S. President Joe Biden spoke to his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Wednesday, his first direct contact with the leader of the world’s second-largest economy since winning the November U.S. presidential election and taking office last month.

It was the first call between Xi and a U.S. president since the Chinese leader spoke with former President Donald Trump in March last year. Since then, relations between the two countries have plunged to their worst level in decades.

Biden told Xi it was a U.S. priority to preserve a free and open Indo-Pacific region and underscored his “fundamental concerns about China’s crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and increasingly assertive actions toward Taiwan,” the White House said in a statement.

Biden and Xi also exchanged views on countering the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as on the shared challenges of climate change and preventing weapons proliferation – a reference to the U.S. desire to cooperate with Beijing in persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, the White House said.

A senior Biden administration official told reporters ahead of the call Biden would be “practical, hard-headed, clear-eyed” in dealings with Xi, but wanted to ensure the two of them had the opportunity to have an open line of communication, despite U.S. concerns about Chinese behavior.

The official said the call came at a time when the United States believed it was in a position of strength, after consultations with allies and partners, to lay out core concerns about China’s “aggressive activities and abuses.”

However, he said Biden’s agenda for the call did not include U.S. participation in Beijing’s 2022 Winter Olympics, despite mounting demands for the Games to be moved over China’s human rights record and Washington’s determination it has committed genocide against minority Muslims in its Xinjiang region.

The Biden administration will look in coming months at adding “new targeted restrictions” on certain sensitive technology exports to China in cooperation with allies and partners, the official said.

He also said there would be no quick moves to lift the former Trump administration’s trade tariffs on China, but more consultations with allies on how to deal with the issue of trade imbalances with Beijing.

SENSITIVE ISSUES

The call came after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by phone to top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi on Friday. That was the first announced high-level exchange between top diplomats from the two countries since former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Yang in Hawaii last June.

In his call, Blinken said Washington would stand up for human rights in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong – all issues Yang had days earlier said the United States should stay out of.

Xi congratulated Biden on his election in a message in November, even though Biden had called him a “thug” during the campaign and vowed to lead an international effort to “pressure, isolate and punish China.”

Biden has called Beijing Washington’s “most serious competitor”, and his administration has indicated it will broadly continue the tough approach taken by Trump.

Biden said in a CBS interview broadcast at the weekend the relationship would be characterized by “extreme competition,” and had shown little sign he was in a hurry to engage. His call with Xi came after those with allies and partners he has vowed to work with to stand up to Beijing.

Biden has said his administration has expressed hopes to cooperate with China on policy priorities like climate change.

“I told him I will work with China when it benefits the American people,” Biden said on Twitter after the call.

In his CBS interview, Biden stressed the relationship he established with Xi when he was vice president under Barack Obama.

Biden said he had had 24-25 hours of private meetings with Xi while vice president and traveled 17,000 miles with him.

Biden described Xi was as both “very bright” and “very tough.” He added: “He doesn’t have – and I don’t mean this is a criticism, just the reality, he doesn’t have a democratic, small D, bone in his body.”

Chinese officials have expressed cautious optimism that the relationship will improve under Biden and have urged Washington to “meet China halfway.”

The Global Times, a tabloid run by Chinese Communist Party paper the People’s Daily, said recently it expected the Biden administration keep talking tough while improving cooperation in some areas.

Trump initially sought to engage China in the first part of his presidency, but his first call with Xi also did not take place until more than two weeks after his inauguration, on Feb. 6, 2017, Washington time.

Main Photo: US President Joe Biden prepares to deliver remarks to Department of Defense personnel, at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, USA, 10 February 2021. EPA-EFE/MICHAEL REYNOLDS / POOL

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