China US File photo
Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke with US President Joe Biden by phone Thursday morning Beijing time. This was the most anticipated phone conversation since Biden took office on January 20. It’s regarded as the strategic focus of Biden’s phone call diplomacy after assuming office. Both sides didn’t disclose the length of the conversation. China released more about the conversation than the US did. The White House statement was relatively brief and selective. In short, the disclosures of both sides are within expectations.
The most informative point of the phone conversation was its timing. It happened on Chinese New Year’s Eve. The White House release also said at the beginning that Biden shared his greetings and well wishes with the Chinese people on the occasion of the Lunar New Year. This was widely interpreted as a gesture that Biden showed respect for President Xi and China. It seems that he was using such goodwill to balance the tough messages the new US administration sent in recent days and various interpretations on those messages.
Xi and Biden had many contacts in the past. They are very familiar with each other. The phone call is a continuation of the personal relationship between the two leaders, which plays a significant role in exchanges between major powers. Its significance in increasing mutual trust between China and the US under the current situation cannot be replaced. It also gives rise to more expectations that China and the US will have more communication channels than they did under the Trump era.
There are no doubt some strategic divergences between China and the US. Donald Trump’s four-year tenure severely magnified and intensified divergences. The Biden administration is at the crossroads of how to re-manage and control those differences. Biden said previously that China and the US “need not have a conflict, but there’s going to be extreme competition.” The phone conversation between the two leaders took place on Chinese New Year’s Eve starting with Biden and Xi extending greetings for the Spring Festival, which once again proved that Biden’s basic attitude is the US would have extreme competition with China, but won’t allow competition to develop into conflict. This is Biden’s bottom line.
There is a clear trend that China-US relations have become increasingly complicated. A new Pentagon task force was set up on Wednesday to review US defense policy and actions toward China. This is an unprecedented institutional arrangement for the US military. It will also have an impact on the overall US policy toward China. Friction between China and the US is on the rise. Some American elites believe that the tougher the US is against China, the better. But should this trend continue, it will bring strategic risks that the US cannot bear. Therefore, the Biden administration will have to talk with China over how to manage China-US seriously.
What’s most important is, how to view the relationship between frictions and cooperation, and whether strategic rationality of both sides could gain the upper hand will be the decisive factor for the future of China-US relations. A win-win situation between China and the US will be a victory for modern human civilization and wisdom. If the two countries end up in serious conflicts, it will be a tragedy for humanity.
The top leaders of both countries demonstrated a gesture of goodwill to promote mutual understanding and control divergences on this special day. We hope the two societies would follow the lead, and the world’s public opinion could also support the positive messages conveyed in the phone call.