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Biden, Xi hold call, their first conversation since November

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President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping spoke Tuesday morning, the latest in a series of intensive diplomatic efforts that have unfolded since late last year as the two sides look to advance areas of cooperation amid tense relations.

The call came as both superpowers are trying to find tentative common ground and reset communications — an ongoing challenge amid simmering disputes over almost all aspects of the relationship, including trade, Russia, the South China Sea and Taiwan.

Both sides said they exchanged in-depth views during the call on topics including military-to-military cooperation, counternarcotics, Taiwan and China’s relationship with Russia.

“The two leaders held a candid and constructive discussion on a range of bilateral, regional, and global issues, including areas of cooperation and areas of difference,” said a White House statement, which described the discussion as “constructive.”

China’s foreign ministry confirmed the meeting and said Xi emphasized reducing risk in the relationship. “Xi Jinping pointed out that China-US relations this year must adhere to several major principles. The first is to value peace, stick to the bottom line of no conflict and no confrontation, and constantly raise positive expectations for Sino-US relations,” it said in a statement.

The call was the first discussion between the two leaders since November, when Biden and Xi met in San Francisco for a breakthrough summit where they agreed to restart cooperation on counternarcotics and artificial intelligence regulation. They also reopened critical communications between the two countries’ militaries — a relationship that had been largely frozen since late 2022. The agreement quelled some fears of a military escalation following several hair-raising close calls between Chinese fighter jets and U.S. surveillance planes in the Pacific

Both Biden and Xi reiterated their stance on Taiwan during the conversation, with Biden calling for peace and stability. Beijing reiterated calls for the United States to not support the island’s independence. It also warned that an “endless stream” of protectionist U.S. trade measures were creating risk in the relationship.

Despite that, Beijing lauded recent gains in the relationship. “The progress in U.S.-China relations since the San Francisco meeting shows that both sides can actively advance cooperation while responsibly managing differences,” the Chinese statement said.

While the slight warming is so far restricted to a few critical areas, the nature of the U.S.-China relationship is starkly different than it was the last time the two countries held a leader-level call in July 2022, when tensions were at a boiling point ahead of a visit to Taiwan by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Following that trip, Beijing conducted provocative military exercises in the region and severed communication across its government with U.S. counterparts

Tuesday’s call did not yield any specific policy outcomes; a senior U.S. administration official described it as a “check in” on the agreements made between the two leaders in November, as well as an opportunity to discuss some of the more fractious elements of the relationship. Before the summit in San Francisco, Biden and Xi last met in person in Bali in November 2022.

“I think both sides realized that it’s important to do that, to really manage the relationship in a more responsible fashion,” said the senior administration official, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity ahead of the planned call.

The call follows a series of high-level meetings between U.S. and Chinese officials, and was proposed during a January meeting in Bangkok between U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan and China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen is due to visit Beijing this week, and a trip is planned for Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Both the White House and China’s foreign ministry reiterated after Tuesday’s call that they welcomed the upcoming trips.

They also said the two leaders emphasized making progress in military-to-military communications — a key issue designed to reduce the risk of military clashes.

Consultations between Chinese and U.S. military officials will take place this week in Honolulu as part of the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement — a long-standing forum designed to reduce the risk of naval clashes through discussions on common operating procedures. “The goal of that is really to talk at the operator level about how to avoid, and better understand the actions of the other party,” the senior administration official said.

Since the November resumption of military-to-military communications, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. held a meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Liu Zhenli, and senior Chinese military officials visited Washington. According to the senior administration official, close calls between U.S. and Chinese military craft in the Pacific have diminished since the leaders’ meeting in San Francisco last year — a “welcome signal.”

“I would not say there was an agreement to stop doing this, but we have consistently raised our concerns about the behavior and how irresponsible it is,” the official said.

Despite the relative progress, the official said the administration is “increasingly concerned” by Chinese behavior in the South China Sea, pointing to recent clashes between China and the Philippines. Last week, Manila lodged its “strongest protest” against Beijing after Chinese vessels blasted a Philippine navy-operated resupply vessel with a water cannon near the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, injuring crew members.

The two leaders also discussed efforts to advance their fledgling cooperation on counternarcotics, which resumed in November after a years-long hiatus, the senior administration official said. Washington has been urging Beijing to step up its oversight of the supply of fentanyl precursor chemicals, which are primarily made in China and the top source of supplies used to create the highly addictive narcotic in the United States. More than 100,000 people died in the United States from fentanyl overdoses in 2023.

Following the November summit between the two leaders, Beijing issued a notice to its domestic industry, and began cooperating in counternarcotics working groups with U.S. officials.

The U.S. official added that “depending on what happens in the coming year,” there are hopes for another in-person meeting between the two leaders.

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