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

The fourth direct conversation between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to be held on Thursday (July 28) with the leaders discussing sore points related to bilateral trade, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Taiwan.

Some analysts and observers believe the call could be a last-ditch make-or-break diplomatic effort to put relations back on an even keel and avoid a more serious confrontation including a potential armed conflict.

After Biden said on July 20 that he expected to speak with Xi within 10 days, neither side officially announced a date for the widely anticipated dialogue. US media said the call would be held on Thursday but Beijing has not confirmed the day or even if a conversation will be held.

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Tuesday that the Biden-Xi phone call was aimed at managing economic competition between the two countries and discussing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and tensions over Taiwan.

Kirby said Biden had not yet decided whether the US would lift tariffs on certain Chinese goods imposed by his predecessor Donald Trump.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told US Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier this month that the US should fulfill China’s demands stated on “four lists.”

Those lists include one that says the US should correct “wrong speeches and behaviors” in its China policy, one that features key individual cases of concern, another about the cancellation of US sanctions and extra tariffs against China and a last one that includes eight areas where the two sides can increase cooperation.

Chinese media said in previous articles that the four lists might not be able to change US behavior but could at least stop the Biden administration from doing new things that cross China’s red lines.

After Biden took office in January last year, he and Xi held a first phone call on September 10. Xi urged Biden to cancel the tariffs imposed by the Trump administration on various Chinese goods while Biden sought to engage Xi on climate change issues.

Prior to the call, Chinese media said Beijing had high hopes that the Biden administration would seek to improve Sino-US relations, which deteriorated sharply under Trump.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and then-US vice-president Joe Biden raise their glasses in a toast during happier bilateral times on September 25, 2015. Image: Agencies / Pool

But in a three-hour virtual meeting with Xi on November 15, Biden raised US concerns about China’s alleged rights abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong; Xi responded that the US should not interfere in China’s internal affairs.

After the call, Chinese media criticized the US for failing to meet any demands raised by China while at the same time doubling down on trying to remove China from global supply chains.

After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 this year, Xi and Biden held a third phone call on March 18. In that call, Biden reportedly warned that there would be “consequences” if China was found to provide “material support” to Russia’s war effort.

In what some perceived as a signal after the call, Beijing allowed heavily censored Chinese news websites to report on setbacks suffered by Russian troops in Ukraine, rather than just parroting the Kremlin’s claims of military successes.

However, the situation changed again after Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a phone call on June 15 where both leaders said they would strengthen their partnership and cooperation. Beijing said Moscow would help to oppose any force that interferes in China’s internal affairs using issues related to Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan as an excuse.

On Tuesday, China’s foreign affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian said there was no information on the expected fourth Biden-Xi call. However, Zhao said on Monday Beijing was getting “seriously prepared” for the possibility that US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi might visit Taiwan.

“We are fully prepared for any eventuality. If the US side insists on making the visit, the Chinese side will take firm and strong measures to safeguard our sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Zhao said. “The US must assume full responsibility for any serious consequence arising thereof.”

On July 9, Blinken told reporters after meeting with Foreign Minister and State Councilor Wang in Bali, Indonesia: “With regard to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and China’s role in that, I shared again with the state councilor that we are concerned about the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s alignment with Russia.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin pose for a group photo during the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 28, 2019. AFP via Getty / Dominique Jacovides

“Now, what you hear from Beijing is that it claims to be neutral. I would start with the proposition that it’s pretty hard to be neutral when it comes to this aggression.

“More than four months now into this brutal invasion, the PRC is still standing by Russia. It’s echoing Russian propaganda around the world. It’s shielding Russia in international organizations. I believe it’s shirking its responsibility as a P5 member, as I said, and even engaging in joint military exercises,” America’s top envoy said.

Wang said separately in a statement that as the US promised it would not seek to change China’s political system, it must start to respect China’s choice of moving on a path of socialism and stop smearing China’s political system and policies.

Wang also said the US should not start a “New Cold War” or use Taiwan issues to suppress mainland China and instead should change its zero-sum mentality and cancel all tariffs imposed on Chinese goods.

US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said recently it could make sense to lift tariffs on items like bicycles and household goods, but not heavy industry products such as steel and aluminum. US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said fighting US inflation was a more complicated issue and could not be addressed with a “singular focus” on lifting China tariffs.

The Office of the USTR finished a two-month consultation on the Section 301 tariffs on the first batch of Chinese industrial imports on July 5. But Biden has not yet made a decision on whether the US would cancel any or all Trump-era tariffs on Chinese goods.

In the last three Biden-Xi calls, the two leaders discussed Taiwan but failed to agree on anything substantial, according to news reports. The issue has recently been in the spotlight since Pelosi said last week she planned to visit Taiwan in August.

Chinese media have so far been mainly quiet on the coming Biden-Xi phone call. As recently as July 10, Chinese news websites widely circulated a commentary that sharply criticized the US for failing to meet China’s four lists demands.

The article said the US had ignored China’s previous two lists on America’s “wrong” speeches and behaviors in its China policy and another on matters of concern including in regard to Chinese student visas and rising anti-China sentiment in the US.

The US-China trade war initiated under Trump has endured under Biden. Photo: AFP

It said that was why Wang gave Blinken two more lists – one on the cancellation of US sanctions and tariffs against China and another on eight areas of potential bilateral cooperation.

The same article said the last list on cooperation including in public health and climate change was also aimed as a warning to Washington that Beijing would not be afraid if the US decided to completely decouple from China.

The author of the article believed that the four lists would help China counter what he termed as US “arrogance.”

Read: China state media changing tune on Russia’s war

Read: Biden finally rethinking Trump’s China trade war

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3