Biden stresses human rights and regional policy in first call to China's Xi Jinping

US president discusses climate change, pandemic and arms control with Chinese counterpart

(FILES) In this file photo taken on December 04, 2013 Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with US Vice President Joe Biden (L) inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. US President Joe Biden expressed concerns to Chinese leader Xi Jinping about human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang late February 10, 2021, in their first call since Biden took office on January 20, according to the White House. / AFP / POOL / LINTAO ZHANG

President Joe Biden raised US concerns about China's human rights record and regional policy in a call with Xi Jinping on Wednesday, his first direct contact, since taking office last month, with the leader of the world's second-largest economy .

It was Mr Xi's first call with a US president since he spoke to former president Donald Trump in March last year. Since then, relations between the two countries have plunged to their worst level in decades.

Mr Biden told his Chinese counterpart it was a US 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.

Mr Biden and Mr Xi 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 US desire to co-operate with Beijing in persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, the White House said.

A senior Biden administration official said before the call that Mr Biden would be "practical, hard-headed, clear-eyed" in dealings with Mr Xi, but wanted to ensure the two of them had the opportunity to have an open line of communication, despite US concerns about China's behaviour.

The official said the call came at a time when the US 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 Mr Biden's agenda for the call did not include US participation in Beijing's 2022 Winter Olympics, despite mounting demands for the Games to be moved because of 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 co-operation 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.

US 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 Mr Yang in Hawaii last June.

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

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

Mr Biden called Beijing Washington's "most serious competitor", and his administration indicated that it will broadly continue the tough approach taken by Mr Trump.

Mr Biden said in a CBS interview broadcast at the weekend that the relationship would be characterised by "extreme competition", and showed little sign he was in a hurry to engage. His call to Mr Xi came after conversations with allies and partners he has vowed to work with to stand up to Beijing.

Mr Biden said his administration had expressed hopes to co-operate with China on policy priorities such as climate change.

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

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

Mr Biden said he had had 24-25 hours of private meetings with Mr Xi while vice president and travelled almost 28,000 kilometres with him.

Mr Biden described Mr Xi as "very bright" and "very tough". He said: "He doesn't have – and I don't mean this as a criticism, just the reality – he doesn't have a democratic, small D, bone in his body."

Chinese officials expressed cautious optimism that the relationship will improve under Mr Biden and 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 to keep talking tough while improving co-operation in some areas.

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

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