Biden-Xi phone call: US warns China on supporting Russia’s military industrial base

Washington: In their first conversation this year, US President Joe Biden warned China’s President Xi Jinping against Beijing’s ongoing support for Russian military industrial base, its aggressive tactics in the South China Sea, China’s “unfair” trade and economic practices, and reiterated the importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, the White House said on Tuesday.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) waves as he walks with US President Joe Biden at Filoli estate on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, in Woodside, California, US, on November 15, 2023. (REUTERS)

But the official readout also indicated that the US continues to see engagement with China as important, with Tuesday’s phone call between the two leaders billed as a follow up to their in-person meeting in Woodside, California in November where both leaders agreed to keep talking to prevent an unintended conflict. The call, the first between Biden and Xi since July 2022, also comes ahead of impending visits by two senior US cabinet officials — treasury secretary Janet Yellen and Secretary of State Antony J Blinken — to Beijing soon.

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The US statement termed the conversation “candid and constructive” on “bilateral, regional and global issues” that include both areas of cooperation and differences. “They reviewed and encouraged progress on key issues discussed at the Woodside Summit, including counter-narcotics cooperation, ongoing military-to-military communication, talks to address AI-related risks, and continuing efforts on climate change and people-to-people exchanges,” the statement said.

But the US side said that it had communicated its range of concerns directly to Xi. Previewing the call, a senior administration official had told reporters on Monday, “We have not changed our approach to the PRC [People’s Republic of China], which remains one focused on the framework of invest, align, and compete. Intense competition requires intense diplomacy to manage tensions, address misperceptions, and prevent unintended conflict. And this call is one way to do that.”

The American statement on the meeting said that Biden had “emphasised the importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and the rule of law and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea”. “He raised concerns over the PRC’s support for Russia’s defence industrial base and its impact on European and transatlantic security”, the official US statement said.

Offering context on the China-Russia link, the senior administration official quoted above said, “As time has gone on, we’ve really seen the PRC start to help to rebuild Russia’s defence industrial base, essentially backfilling the trade from European partners, helping provide the components that get us slowly towards increasing Russia’s capabilities in Ukraine. And that has, of course, longer-term impacts on European security as well.”

The US has also warned China not to interfere in American elections. The official said that this had been a topic at nearly every senior level engagement. “Like with any message we deliver to China…it is one of continual reinforcement of concern.”

On the bilateral front, Biden raised “continued concerns about the PRC’s unfair trade policies and non-market economic practices, which harm American workers and families.”

In the wake of tech restrictions imposed on China, the American side added that Biden had told Xi that the US will “take necessary actions to prevent advanced US technologies from being used to undermine our national security, without unduly limiting trade and investment”.

The call ended, according to the statement, with both leaders welcoming “ongoing efforts to maintain open channels of communication and responsibly manage the relationship through high-level diplomacy and working-level consultations in the weeks and months ahead”.

Besides political engagements, the US-China military engagements have also resumed. The administration official quoted above said that since the November summit, the US joint chiefs of staff held a virtual meeting with his counterpart in December, defence policy coordination talks between the two sides took place in January, operator level military maritime consultative agreements are scheduled for this week in Honolulu, and talks at both the secretary-minister level and theatre command levels are expected soon.

Even as the US has kept up its engagement with China at a time when Washington is struggling with wars in West Asia and Europe, it has kept up its focus on deepening links with allies and partners in Indo-Pacific. Next week, the US will host the first trilateral with Japan and Philippines in Washington, a particularly significant meeting given Japan’s military modernisation attempts and China’s aggressive maritime pressure on Philippines in violation of law of seas.

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