Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden in a combination file photo. Photos: AFP / Nicolas Asfouri and Nicholas Kamm

US President Joe Biden and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping talked for the first time in seven months Thursday, with both leaders urging a path away from conflict but holding ground on fierce competition between the superpowers.

In the 90-minute call, Biden warned against misunderstandings that could lead to confrontation between Washington and Beijing, the White House said, while Xi called for a new direction in a relationship beset by “serious difficulties”. 

US-China relations went into a nosedive under Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, who launched a trade war between the world’s number one and two economies and harangued the Chinese government for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Biden’s administration, while urging multilateralism and an end to Trump’s “America first” ideology, has kept trade tariffs in place and remains tough on other contentious areas of the relationship with Beijing, such as cybersecurity and human rights.

During the call, Biden’s message was that the United States wants to ensure “we don’t have any situation in the future where we veer into unintended conflict,” a senior US administration official told reporters.

In Beijing, state broadcaster CCTV reported that the phone call was “candid, in-depth” with Xi noting the “serious difficulties” caused by recent US policy towards China, which has seen the countries joust over trade, tech, human rights and the origins of the coronavirus.

“Whether China and the US can properly handle their relations… is critical for the future and destiny of the world,” state broadcaster CCTV said citing Xi. 

The White House signaled the diplomatic impasse is unsustainable and potentially dangerous, requiring intervention by the leaders in Thursday’s call.

“We welcome stiff competition but we don’t want that competition to veer into conflict,” the official told reporters.

The goal of the call was to set out “guardrails” so that the relationship can be “managed responsibly.”

Lower level attempts to engage with China have not gone well, especially at an angry March exchange between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and top Chinese officials when they met in Anchorage, Alaska.

“We have not been very satisfied with our interlocutors’ behavior,” the senior official told reporters.

Accusing the Chinese of being mostly “unwilling to engage in serious or substantive” talks, the official said, “We don’t believe that that is how responsible nations act, especially given the global importance of the US-China competition.”

Faced with the impasse, “President Biden understood the importance of engaging President Xi directly,” the official said.

According to a White House readout, Biden and Xi “discussed areas where our interests converge, and areas where our interests, values, and perspectives diverge.”

No breakthroughs

Thursday’s call focused on “broad and strategic” issues, with no concrete decisions expected on outstanding issues or setting up a first Biden-Xi summit, the official said.

The list of disagreements between Washington and Beijing is long and growing.

Beyond trade, with the White House official complaining of “China’s unfair and coercive trade practices,” there is deepening tension over China’s claims to Taiwan and numerous islands in the South China Sea.

Antony Blinken with Wang Yi in 2015. Their encounter in Alaska was frostier. Photo: AFP / Andy Wong

Washington is also angered by what it says is China’s refusal to cooperate with an international probe into the origins of the Covid-19 virus, which emerged in China before sweeping worldwide.

There are areas where the two powers also find themselves having to cooperate or at least coordinate, including on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and the climate crisis.

The White House said that Biden and Xi discussed the Covid pandemic and climate, among other global topics. Biden also brought up concerns about Chinese cyber attacks against the United States.

But Thursday’s call was “not about finding some sort of breakthrough agreements,” the official said.

It was “about keeping the channels of communication open” between the two powers.

“Our goal is, is to really reach a steady state of affairs between the United States and China,” the official said.