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International relations

As Biden pivots focus back to Asia, call made to reassure Xi

Leaders agree on avoiding accidental clashes as Quad set to meet next week

Chinese President Xi Jinping  shakes hands with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden inside the Great Hall of the People in 2013.   © Reuters

BEIJING/WASHINGTON/NEW YORK -- The Biden administration looks set to put the diplomatic focus back on the Indo-Pacific and especially China, after a grueling month that was absorbed almost entirely by Afghanistan.

Key in this effort will be next week's first in-person summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue taking place in Washington, with outgoing Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison attending along with President Joe Biden.

Countering Chinese behavior is expected to be a theme in the Quad meeting. But the U.S. wants to convey to Beijing that any upcoming hardening in policies on China should not be taken as a path to a full-blown conflict, and Biden initiated a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday to send that message.

Reports also surfaced Friday of action on the economic front as well. U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo are meeting Friday to discuss the next steps on the Phase One trade deal that the Trump administration signed with Beijing, as well as a possible new investigation into Chinese subsidies that hurt U.S. businesses, Bloomberg reported, citing unnamed sources. One enforcement option involves $300 billion in additional tariffs on Chinese imports.

In the 90-minute phone call, Biden and Xi agreed on maintaining communication to avoid accidental clashes, as tensions simmer over issues such as the South China Sea. They "discussed the responsibility of both nations to ensure competition does not veer into conflict," according to the White House readout of the call.

Biden stressed the U.S. interest for peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and worldwide, the White House readout said. He urged Xi to help bring bilateral relations back on track to avoid misunderstandings or unintended conflict.

Suffering a political and diplomatic hit from the disorderly exit out of Afghanistan, the administration looks to the Quad meeting as a way to reassert Washington's role in the world.

"Biden really wants to do the Quad summit, especially after Afghanistan, to show American leadership," a source close to the White House said. The administration struggled to set a date for the meeting while Suga was involved in a leadership race for his party. Now that Suga decided not to run, Biden opted to proceed with the summit, even if the Japanese leader is on his way out.

The Biden-Xi call comes amid growing U.S. concerns about the potential consequences of poor communication between the two sides. Top American and Chinese defense officials have yet to meet since Biden took office in January.

The two leaders "agreed to maintain frequent contact by multiple means," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters Friday.

Xi told Biden that "due to the U.S. policy on China, the China-U.S. relationship has run into serious difficulty," according to a Foreign Ministry readout on the call.

The Chinese leader called for both sides to respect each other's "core concerns," in a jab at Washington over its criticism of alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang and its perceived meddling on the Taiwan issue. The two countries can continue dialogue on international issues on the basis of "properly managing differences," the readout said.

The discussion likely covered the turmoil in Afghanistan since the U.S. military drawdown there, as well as dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden said the U.S. has no intention of changing its "One China" policy, according to the Foreign Ministry readout.

But on Friday, the Financial Times reported that Washington was seriously considering a request from Taiwan to change the name of its mission in the U.S. capital from "Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office" to "Taiwan Representative Office," a move that would be sure to anger Beijing.

Ahead of a major climate change conference in November, Biden urged Xi to do more to address the issue. But Xi seemed to dismiss the possibility of adopting a more ambitious emissions reduction target, saying China has actively taken on global responsibilities based on its domestic situation.

Whether Washington and Beijing make any progress on easing tensions remains an open question. China holds its twice-a-decade Communist Party congress next year, and the perception of Xi as compromising with the U.S. could put his authoritative image at risk.

"A face-to-face summit will probably come in 2022 or later," a Chinese diplomatic source said. "The coronavirus is still spreading, and there's no need to hurry."

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